Michael Clifford: Our silence is a betrayal of Khashoggi

Where's the Skibbereen Eagle when you need it? On September 5, 1898, the West Cork newspaper laid it on the line for Nicholas II, the man who ruled Russia with an iron fist.

Michael Clifford: Our silence is a betrayal of Khashoggi

Where's the Skibbereen Eagle when you need it? On September 5, 1898, the West Cork newspaper laid it on the line for Nicholas II, the man who ruled Russia with an iron fist.

“We will still keep our eye on the emperor of Russia and on all such despotic enemies, whether at home or abroad, of human progression and man’s natural rights,” the editorial spelled out.

The occasion has gone down in the annals as an hilarious example of misplaced self-importance. By contrast, the attitude in official circles today would appear to be to climb under the nearest rock, when it comes to calling out thuggery abroad.

Witness the reaction to the savage murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Thus far, there has been practically no response from the Irish Government to the killing of a journalist for doing his job of holding power to account.

Khashoggi, as has been documented, was a thorn in the side of Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Mohammed Bin Salam (known as MBS).

The journalist has called out MBS’s wild excesses.

On a global scale, these include the prosecution of war in neighbouring, impoverished Yemen, where, according to aid agencies, 13m face death by starvation in the “worst famine in the world in 100 years”.

Last year, Khashoggi left Saudi Arabia, for fear of being locked up and silenced. He relocated to the USA, where he wrote a weekly column for the Washington Post.

On October 2, he entered the Saudi consulate in Ankara, by appointment, to pick up legal documents for his proposed marriage. He died violently in the building a short time later.

Earlier in the day, private planes carrying 15 Saudis with close links to MBS landed in Ankara. Those on board returned whence they came that evening. Among them was a pathologist with vast experience in autopsies.

One leak from Turkish intelligence sources suggested that the Saudi killers began chopping off Kashoggi’s fingers while he was still alive. This source also claimed that an audio recording of the killing caught the pathologist telling others to plug in headphones and listen to music, which would ease the stress of chopping up a body.

The Saudis initially claimed that the journalist left the consulate later that day, until they finally admitted he had been murdered. “Rogue” elements have been blamed.

The murder is chilling on many fronts. It was obviously meticulously planned and premeditated. A consulate in a foreign country can act as a refuge for people displaced from their own country. Here, it was used by a despotic ruler to kill one of his own.

MBS quite obviously felt secure in ordering this killing. Why wouldn’t he? Turkey is governed by a fellow strongman, Recep Erdogan, who has shown scant regard for democratic norms and has locked up awkward journalists.

It now looks as though Erdogan did not react with indifference, but who knows what exactly his game is.

Donal Trump, likewise, has no time for journalists, whom he describes as “enemies of the people”. Trump’s reaction was to ring up the prince, get told it was all lies, and relay that he believed the prince.

His first priority was to ensure that the USA could continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, arms that are being used to kill in Yemen.

“Khashoggi is not a United States citizen,” Trump said.

We don’t like it, but whether or not we should stop $110bn being spent in this country… I’m not in favour of that.

Then, when the truth refused to stay buried, he concentrated on the logistics of the killing operation.

“They had a very bad original concept. It was carried out poorly, and the cover-up was one of the worst in the history of cover-ups,” he said.

That was the considered response of the US president to the apparent state-sponsored murder of a US citizen, one who was writing for the Washington Post.

And what has been the response in this country, where once the Skibbereen Eagle called out tyrants in a far-off land?

The business umbrella group, IBEC, did pull out of Saudi Arabia’s Future Investment Initiative last week.

The initiative had been flagged as a trough, where all the global firms, and half the governments, of the developed world would place their snouts. For some, the smell of rotting flesh was too powerful.

Not for all, though. The accountancy firms PriceWaterhouseCooper, EY, and Deloitte, all of which hoover up major state contracts in this country, remained as partners to the event.

Perhaps the next time one of their representatives is wheeled out on TV to disseminate their expertise on money matters, they might be asked about the smell.

At governmental level, there has been silence. There was no question of calling in the Saudi ambassador, no rush to condemn, as would be the case if Saudi Arabia was not a wealthy country.

According to reports, the only person at cabinet to raise the issue in recent weeks was Finian McGrath, who got the kind of response usually reserved for the drunken uncle at a wedding.

What if Mr Khashoggi had met his brutal end in the Saudi consulate in Dublin? Would reaction be any different then?

Would the government even show the kind of outrage that Erdogan has? Or would the first instinct be to look to the UK and the USA to check how measured any response should be?

Last March, this country expelled a Russian diplomat, in response to the poisoning of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, England.

The Government moved after the British and Americans decided that expulsion of some diplomats was the appropriate response to another case of apparent state-sponsored murder in a European country.

It would seem that this country is perfectly comfortable in measuring any response to murder, war, or the erosion of human rights, according to what the British and Americans deem appropriate.

There may well have been a case to act according to that compass once upon a time. Notwithstanding their respective records of violence and subterfuge overseas, both of those countries did insist on adherence to a basic moral benchmark, in public at any rate.

Those days are gone. The USA is led by a bully, who draws his strength from conflict at home and abroad. His moral benchmark begins and end with his ego.

The UK, meanwhile, is cannibalising itself on English nationalism. The inevitable prospect of a post-Brexit world, in which the UK’s standing diminishes, will lead inevitably to a decline of any fidelity to global values.

And yet, it would appear, we, in this country, continue to look to those friends for guidance on how we should respond when despots act brutally, confident that they are immune from sanction.

Come on back, the Skibbereen Eagle. All is forgiven.

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