June 12, 2024

Biden administration: Why we sanction Zimbabwe but not ‘the killer’ of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman

Mohammed bin Salman
Mohammed bin Salman

The Biden administration on Wednesday explained why it is yet to sanction the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud who directed the brutal murder of former Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashogghi, according to American intelligence agencies.

A United Nations investigator report published in 2019 also found that Khashoggi’s murder in Turkey was a crime perpetrated at the highest levels of the Saudi Arabian power structure and that further investigations of ranking Saudi officials, including Mohammed bin Salman, were required.

Yet, former President Donald J. Trump and current President Joseph R. Biden Jr. have failed to sanction him, explaining that America’s interests in Saudi Arabia supersede the killing of Kashoggi, a journalist and permanent resident of the United States.

At a teleconference on Wednesday to discuss Zimbabwe sanctions, I asked two senior administration officials – the U.S. Department of State Sanctions Coordinator Ambassador James O’Brien and the Director of Sanctions Policy and Implementation Jim Mullinax “what will you say to people who believe that the U.S. actually sanctions people who don’t have money?”

“For instance, the current prince of Saudi Arabia – he killed Khashoggi, has been oppressing his people, and recently disrespected President Biden by increasing oil prices to help Putin massacre Ukrainians, but he’s not being sanctioned – nothing is happening to him.  And here we are sanctioning people in Zimbabwe and different African countries,” I added.

In a statement on October 5, the White House said President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was ‘disappointed’ by the ‘shortsighted decision’ by OPEC+ to cut production quotas while global economy is still dealing with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The President is disappointed by the shortsighted decision by OPEC+ to cut production quotas while the global economy is dealing with the continued negative impact of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. At a time when maintaining a global supply of energy is of paramount importance, this decision will have the most negative impact on lower- and middle-income countries that are already reeling from elevated energy prices,” read a joint statement by the White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and National Economic Council Director Brian Deese.

They added, “The President’s work here at home, and with allies around the world, has helped to bring down U.S. gas prices: since the beginning of the summer, gas prices are down $1.20 – and the most common price at gas stations today is $3.29/gallon. At the President’s direction, the Department of Energy will deliver another 10 million barrels from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to the market next month, continuing the historic releases the President ordered in March. The President will continue to direct SPR releases as appropriate to protect American consumers and promote energy security, and he is directing the Secretary of Energy to explore any additional responsible actions to continue increasing domestic production in the immediate term.”

At their teleconference on Wednesday, the U.S. Department of State Sanctions Coordinator Ambassador James O’Brien said of the double standard that sanctions were just one tool but not all of the tools that the U.S. government uses to try to change the behaviors of bad actors.

He said, “Again, we start from the premise that sanctions are one tool, but not all the tools that we have to try to change the behavior of individuals.  And I think it’s always possible to find a case that makes us appear to be applying the standards inconsistently.  What I’d say is we apply our policy in a way that reflects the reality of each individual situation, and I don’t think it’s fair to say that we avoid – we make decisions based on who has money or who has power.  Our largest sanctions program – the largest in U.S. history – is directed at Russia, which is earning $80 billion a month from energy sales.  And we encourage those sales, because that energy is important particularly in the developing world.  So it’s not a case about money or no money. 

“We also designate individuals who participate in human rights abuses regardless of whether they are seeking to travel or have the money to buy property or anything else.  It’s whether we feel this is the right tool to highlight the abuses that we think inhibit the ability of people to live in a democratic and law-abiding society.  And that’s the test.

“Now, sometimes we can use other tools to try to achieve similar results.  Sometimes the sanctions are the proper tool.  But whether we pick the right individuals to designate, whether they remain the right individuals, whether we have other ways or we should be looking at other people, these are questions we ask ourselves all the time as we review the programs.  So it’s not a one-time snapshot and it certainly is not decided by any one factor.”

O’Brien earlier explained that the United States sanctions bad actors and countries because it wants “people to live in democratic governments, be able to pursue their own desires, be prosperous, and be free.”

On Zimbabwe, where the United States delisted 11 people earlier this year and is continuing to look carefully at the program, he said that the Biden administration is asking authorities there to take “meaningful, noticeable, material actions that strengthen the democratic processes, build the institutions, and respect its constitution.”

“We’d also like to see condemnation and prosecution of corrupt – for corruption and human rights abuses.  Those are the things that will lead to people coming off the sanctions list, but they’re also the actions that make it much easier for a broader engagement,” O’Brien said. “So, as I mentioned at the beginning, the point of sanctions is to be a part of a broader policy, and the behaviors we want to see change are the ones that lead to sanctions, but they’re also the behaviors that impede the ability of the governments to coordinate well.”

O’Brien cited a specific example of U.S. government officials who were attacked in Zimbabwe by thugs.

“And I just want to call attention to one particular incident that matters to us here in Washington,” he said. “There was an incident involving some staff from our U.S. Senate. 

“These are public servants who are deeply committed to a stronger U.S. relationship to Africa, and so the idea that a group of thugs in some cars would try to intimidate visiting U.S. officials resonates incredibly poorly across Washington. Those are the acts of a government that doesn’t want to be engaged. 

“They’re not the acts of a government that’s looking to improve its relationship with the United States, but also with the wider international community. So things like that need to stop, but mostly we want to see changes in the behavior related to human rights abuses, antidemocratic behavior, and corruption,” he added.

The Director of Sanctions Policy and Implementation Jim Mullinax explained that sanctions in Zimbabwe are “targeting individuals and entities who have been actively involved in actions that violate human rights of individuals, who have facilitated corruption, and who undermine democracy.”

He added, “And our sanctions impose a cost on their behavior.  By restricting their use of the U.S. financial system, we cut off the access to resources that they may use to further their bad actions.  We also use sanctions to prevent them from using the United States as a safe haven for any ill-gotten gains that they may receive from their corrupt activities. So it’s really an opportunity or it’s really a tool to try to influence the behavior of sanctioned individuals and encourage them to cease their malign activity. 

“So I’ll stop there.  Ambassador O’Brien already mentioned that this program has evolved over the many years that it’s been in existence, but we do continue to review our sanctions designations, and as he noted, we recently removed 11 individuals from the program because we believe that they are no longer engaging in the types of activities that caused them to be sanctioned in the first place.  And we’ll continue to review the Zimbabwe sanctions-related designations to keep them current and to make sure that they’re reflecting the current reality.”

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