The United Nations is held to high standards and is perpetually scrutinised over its partnerships with authoritarian governments, but a recent scandal involving Saudi Arabia has truly irked human rights groups.
The world body has faced a barrage of criticism over its decision to co-host an event with the foundation of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, who is better known as MBS, only days before the anniversary of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other campaign groups have bashed the UN over the tie-up, saying it serves to rehabilitate MBS despite his connections to Khashoggi’s death and a war in Yemen that has pushed the country to the brink of famine.
“Why is the UN helping the Saudi crown prince whitewash his record by co-hosting a conference with a foundation he leads just a year after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi?” HRW’s executive director Ken Roth said in a tweet. Sunjeev Bery, director of Freedom Forward, another campaign group, blasted the UN for partnering with the “brutal crown prince”; while Mandeep Tiwana, from Civicus, a rights group, called the link-up “disturbing”.
“The UN is indeed expected to act as the conscience of the world,” Tiwana told InsideOver. “Repressive governments and leaders who brutally suppress the media and civil society should be shunned rather than feted through joint events and opportunistic partnerships.”
The event, known as the Misk-OSGEY Youth Forum, is a partnership between the UN’s youth envoy, Jayathma Wickramanayake, and the Misk Foundation, a youth education and culture foundation chaired by MBS. Nicholas Ceolin, a spokesman for the UN youth envoy, declined to comment on the controversy. Instead, the office released a statement saying the forum would “bring together young leaders, creators and thinkers with global innovators”.
Saudi Arabia’s mission to the UN declined to comment. The workshop will take place in New York on September 23 — only 10 days before the first anniversary of Khashoggi’s murder on October 2 last year, when Saudi government agents killed and dismembered the journalist inside the country’s consulate in Istanbul.
The CIA later assessed that MBS had personally ordered the assassination. Saudi officials, who initially said Khashoggi had left the building alive, now say the journalist was killed in a rogue operation that did not involve MBS.
The workshop for 300 young people at the New York Public Library will occur on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, when United States President Donald Trump and other leaders converge on the city for an annual diplomatic gabfest. The forum is designed to encourage young people to launch enterprises that benefit the community while promoting environmental issues and other parts of a UN agenda known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
Speakers will include Bart Houlahan, an entrepreneur who advocates for sustainable business practices, and Alexandra Cousteau, an environmentalist and granddaughter of acclaimed French explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau.
Other speakers include Ann Rosenberg, a self-styled UN technology expert, Andrew Corbett, a scholar of entrepreneurship at Babson College, and Paul Polman, a former CEO of consumer products firm Unilever.
Dr Reem Bint Mansour Al-Saud, a Saudi princess and diplomat, will also speak at the workshop. Houlahan, Rosenberg, Corbett and Cousteau did not reply to Inside Over’s requests for comment. Khashoggi, a US-based Washington Post journalist who frequently derided the Saudi government, was killed while visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he was collecting papers for his wedding.
Agnes Callamard, a UN rapporteur, issued a study earlier this year that described the assassination as a “deliberate, premeditated execution,” and called for an investigation into MBS and other top Saudi officials. Saudi Arabia has also been in the spotlight over its four-year-old war in neighbouring Yemen, where Riyadh has been accused of war crimes while it leads a military coalition against the country’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels.
The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people and pushed what was already Arabia’s poorest nation to the verge of famine and what the UN has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.