24th Sep 2023

EU ambivalent on UN probe into Saudi slaughter of migrants

  • Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, Saudi's minister of foreign affairs, was in Brussels in February, meeting EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell (Photo: European Union)
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The European Commission suggested it won't support a possible independent UN-backed inquiry into the alleged mass killings of Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers by Saudi border guards.

Asked on Thursday (31 August) if it would back a resolution to set up such an inquiry, Nabila Massrali, a spokesperson from the EU's foreign policy branch, said they would instead raise the allegations directly with Saudi Arabia and the Houthi defacto authorities in Yemen.

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"These are serious allegations that need to be further investigated in order to ensure accountability," she said, noting they welcome the investigations announced by Ethiopia to conduct a joint inquiry with Saudi Arabia over the reported killings of hundreds of people as recently documented by Human Rights Watch.

She also said that the commission would support dialogue with Yemen and others at the UN Human Rights Council, where such a resolution would be adopted.

But the ambivalent response on whether they would support a possible resolution is likely to raise further concerns that the brutal leadership under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) will go unchallenged and unpunished.

"It would be devastating, honestly, if the global attention isn't matched with an institutional response," Nadia Hardman, who authored the Human Rights Watch report on the Saudi killings, told EUobserver.

Her report says hundreds, possibly thousands, of mostly Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers had been killed by Saudi border forces over the span of 15 months along the Yemen border.

"We need an independent investigation to really assess the abuses and the killings," she said.

That investigation could take shape at the upcoming UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

UN experts had also last October highlighted similar allegations of mass killings by the Saudi authorities.

And a recent New York Times article suggested EU officials had been briefed on those atrocities the following December, months before Hardman's report went public.

The rise of Saudi Arabia

The European Commission was unable to provide any immediate information on whether the UN allegations made in October had been raised by the EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, during his official meetings with Saudi officials.

Borrell met with Saudi's minister of foreign affairs in February in Brussels and held subsequent discussions with him over the phone in May. The exchanges are part of a wider EU strategy announced last year to cosy up to the Gulf states.

But Borrell is also courting the Saudis to quell Russia's invasion in Ukraine as the 38-year old MBS continues to crackdown on any dissent at home, while at the same time spending large sums of money, especially on sports, to improve the Kingdom's image abroad.

A Saudi $650bn (€597bn) wealth fund known as the Public Investment Fund (PIF) is largely behind the whitewashing, says Joey Shea, an expert on Saudi Arabia at Human Rights Watch.

"We are concerned that the public investment fund itself has been complicit in human rights abuses and may have been directly involved in human rights abuses," she said.

She said numerous companies have been transferred into the PIF, including Sky Prime Aviation, which owns the jets that took a squad of assassins to Istanbul to murder Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist.

In early August, Saudi Arabia had also hosted the Jeddah Summit where some 40 countries came together to discuss a possible peace plan in Ukraine.

The summit is largely seen as part of Riyadh's diplomatic strategy to assert its rising regional role while its coffers swell due to a surge in oil and gas prices.

"The meeting in Saudi Arabia was certainly a diplomatic success because of the number of countries attending," Borrell said on Thursday ahead of a meeting among EU foreign ministers in Spain.

The comments came after Saudi authorities handed a death sentence to Muhammad al-Ghamdi, a retired Saudi teacher, for tweets criticising the Saudi royal family.

Saudi Arabia's Kingdom Holding Company is one of the largest share holders of X, formerly known as Twitter.

The company's chief executive and founder is prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a royal family member.

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