Citing rights abuses, House Democrats push administration to snub Saudi-hosted G-20 summit

Lawmakers said the US government has an obligation to ensure such gatherings are not used to distract from ongoing human rights violations.

As Saudi Arabia gears up to host the Group of 20 next month, a group of House Democrats is urging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to withdraw the United States from the annual summit in protest of the kingdom’s dismal human rights record. 

A letter signed by more than 40 members of Congress describes Saudi Arabia as “an unfit and inappropriate” host and calls on Pompeo to make progress on human reforms a condition for US participation in this year’s meeting of major world economies. 

“The Saudi government has a long record of silencing the very voices that are necessary for a meaningful global conversation regarding the massive challenges we collectively face,” the lawmakers wrote to Pompeo on Wednesday. “Our government has an obligation to ensure that G-20 convenings are not used by host governments to obscure or hide their own repressive and environmentally destructive practices.”

The letter comes as human rights organizations are dialing up the pressure on foreign governments to snub the gathering, which will be held virtually Nov. 21-22 and chaired by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

Last month, the mayors of London, Los Angeles, New York and Paris cited human rights concerns when boycotting the Urban 20, a summit of world cities held in Saudi Arabia. The European Parliament has also voted to majorly downgrade the European Union’s participation in the G-20.

“I cannot think of a worse selection to host the G-20 summit,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., on a call with reporters Wednesday. “Saudi Arabia’s government stands in stark contrast to every ideal we claim to uphold as Americans.” 

Since emerging as Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has made good on some pledges to modernize the country, including lifting a ban on women driving. But many of the very women who campaigned for those freedoms remain behind bars. 

The family of prominent right-to-drive campaigner Loujain al-Hathloul says she has been tortured, threatened with rape and periodically held in solitary confinement during the more than two years she has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia without trial.

“They stopped Loujain because she tried to help improve the situation. They will do it again and again,” said Alia al-Hathloul, the activist’s sister. 

Human rights reforms, including the allowance of free expression and peaceful activism, were among the issues Pompeo said he raised with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan on his visit to Washington last week. 

During joint remarks with his Saudi counterpart, Pompeo touched on the plight of American citizens, including Walid Fitaihi, a dual US-Saudi citizen swept up in the Saudi government’s anti-corruption campaign. After spending nearly two years in prison, the Harvard-educated physician is now barred from leaving the country under a strict travel ban.

Saudi Arabia has faced a rising tide of criticism in Congress since the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a crime the CIA concluded was personally ordered by Prince Mohammed. 

The young prince blames rogue actors inside the Saudi government but has also said he bears responsibility for what happened under his watch. In September, a Saudi court sentenced eight unnamed defendants to prison over Khashoggi’s murder in a closed-door trial widely seen as a sham. 

US President Donald Trump, who repeatedly dismissed the intelligence community’s findings on Prince Mohammed’s complicity, has rebuffed calls for a reset in US-Saudi relations. Viewing Riyadh as a valuable ally and bulwark against Iran, Trump bypassed Congress to move ahead with billions of dollars in weapons sales to the kingdom. 

The Trump administration has also resisted making public the intelligence community’s findings on the journalist’s murder. In an effort to hold Saudi Arabia accountable and seek information from US intelligence officials, Khashoggi’s fiancee Hatice Cengiz filed a civil lawsuit in a US federal court Tuesday against the crown prince and other Saudi officials.

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