Don’t Let the Saudis Off the Hook for the Migrant Massacres

There needs to be sustained pressure on the White House from Congress and human rights groups so that they can’t go back to ignoring it.

By Daniel Larison
Aug 31, 2023

The Biden administration knew about the killing of hundreds and possibly thousands of Ethiopian migrants by Saudi border guards months before the Human Rights Watch report raised the alarm last week, but did nothing about it:

“The diplomats got more detail in December, when United Nations officials presented them with information about Saudi security forces shooting, shelling and abusing migrants, leaving many dead and wounded, according to U.S. officials and a person who attended the meetings, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity since they were not authorized to speak to journalists.

In the months since, American officials have not publicly criticized the Saudis’ conduct, although State Department officials said this past week, following a published report of the killings, that U.S. diplomats have raised the issue with their Saudi counterparts and asked them to investigate.”

The Washington Post reports today that the administration is now pressing the Saudis to identify the units responsible for massacring the migrants. It is clear that they would not be doing even this much if Human Rights Watch had not published the report detailing how Saudi forces repeatedly opened fire on unarmed people as they crossed the border over a period of fifteen months. If it weren’t for the external pressure and publicity created by the report, the administration almost certainly would have continued to stay silent and look the other way while Saudi forces continued to slaughter these people. There needs to be sustained pressure on the White House from Congress and human rights groups so that they can’t go back to ignoring it.

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These killings have not been sporadic or isolated events. As the report states, “the pattern of abuses has changed from an apparent practice of occasional shootings and mass detentions to widespread and systematic killings.” If the U.S. can’t or won’t use its leverage with Riyadh to put an end to these massacres, it should review all military assistance that it provides to the kingdom with an eye on bringing that assistance to an end. I don’t expect the Biden administration to do any of that, but that is the bare minimum of what their own rhetoric demands.

The administration has to do a lot more than ask the Saudis to identify the perpetrators. The Saudi government won’t even admit to committing the massacres, so we know that they aren’t going to cooperate in identifying the specific units involved. They will stonewall and pretend to be deeply offended, just as they did every time their forces were fairly accused of committing atrocities in Yemen. Washington’s old preferred approach of letting the Saudis investigate themselves is obviously unacceptable. We know that a Saudi self-investigation wouldn’t be worth anything if they even bothered to go through the motions of conducting one.

The U.S. needs to conduct its own investigation, and it should bring this issue to the Security Council. All pending arms sales to the Saudi government should be suspended and put under review, and no more arms sales should be concluded for the foreseeable future. Every day that the administration doesn’t take these steps, they should be forced to explain why they are letting the Saudi government off the hook for such egregious crimes.

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It goes without saying that there should no new U.S. commitments made to Saudi Arabia while their forces are gunning down and mortaring unarmed people by the hundreds and thousands. The Biden administration should halt all talks with the Saudi government about a normalization deal. That proposed deal was already a bad idea for the U.S. for many reasons, and the report about the massacres provides hundreds more reasons why the U.S. should want no part of it. If Biden doesn’t halt the talks, the relevant committees in both houses should call administration officials to answer questions about the promises that the administration is making to this terrible client state.

Congress should make clear to Biden that any new deal with the Saudis is dead on arrival. Biden’s initiative would leave the U.S. with more obligations and entanglements in the Middle East than it already has. The administration should stop wasting its time and resources on currying favor with Saudi Arabia.

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