The brainchild of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi became a reality today, joining a growing chorus of human rights groups advocating for a rethink of US ties to Arab autocracies.
Friends and former colleagues of the late Washington Post columnist formally launched Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) almost two years to the day since his Oct. 2 killing in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The group’s executive director, Sarah Leah Whitson, described the nonprofit as a “hybrid organization” combining human rights research and advocacy, think tank analysis and a publishing platform for exiled voices from the region during a livestreamed launch event.
Among DAWN’s unique features will be a “Khashoggi index” tracking foreign government’s role in hindering democracy in the region. The organization also plans to highlight mid-level bureaucrats engaged in human rights violations, leading to possible US sanctions or legal action.
The organization is funded by friends of Khashoggi and “foundations,” Whitson said, and does not take government money. She said DAWN eventually aims to cover countries from across the Middle East and North Africa but that its limited research staff will initially focus on three nations particularly close to the Donald Trump administration: Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. The Trump administration sanctioned 17 Saudi officials a month after Khashoggi’s killing but not the powerful crown prince, Mohamed bin Salman.
“Democracy remains the most effective way to tackle terror, stop bloodshed and political violence in Arab countries.”Jamal Khashoggi, Al-Arabiya, June 12, 2016
“The reason that we’ve made that strategic choice, and ethical choice, is because these three governments are the ones most closely aligned to the United States and the current administration,” said Whitson, a former executive director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch and managing director for research and policy at the dovish Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
“These are the three governments that are receiving the most support and assistance — military assistance in particular — from the United States,” she said. “And as an American organization, we feel that that’s where our greatest responsibility lies.”
DAWN is not alone in its focus on this trio of countries that led the counter-revolution against the 2011 Arab Spring. Two other groups — Freedom Forward and the Freedom Initiative — have registered to lobby for human rights in some of those same countries over the past few weeks. Whitson name-checked both of them in her remarks.
“We are working in coalition with these excellent organizations [which] we consider our allies and our friends,” she said.
Led by Sunjeev Bery, a former advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International USA, Freedom Forward registered to lobby regarding “human rights violations in Saudi Arabia” last month, Foreign Lobby Report first reported on Aug. 5. Registered on the account is Bethany Alhaidari, an an American human rights law expert who is fighting her Saudi ex-husband in US court for custody of their five-year-old daughter.
The Freedom Initiative for its part is led by US citizen Mohamed Soltan, a former political prisoner in Egypt who was released in 2015 after being jailed for almost two years for protesting the military coup against elected President Mohammed Morsi. The group advocates for the release of political prisoners in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and recently hired its first lobbying firm, the American Continental Group, as we first reported Sept. 8.
DAWN itself was briefly listed under the domestic Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) as having retained Kilpatrick Townsend Stockton to lobby for the “continuance of Jamal Khashoggi’s work in human/civil rights advancing democracy in the Middle East,” but Whitson now says that registration was in error. Kilpatrick’s initial registration was for DAWN “on behalf of” Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, but it was amended in the fall of 2019 to remove any mention of DAWN. The firm disclosed $120,000 in payments from early 2019 until its termination in July 2020.
“Hatice is of course a close friend of the DAWN team but has no formal affiliation with the organization,” Whitson said in an email.
Despite its network of allied groups, DAWN faces formidable obstacles in terms of entrenched US interests and counter-advocacy by deep-pocketed governments. Saudi Arabia in particular has spent heavily on lobbying to counter bipartisan concerns about its human rights record, spending $34 million in 2018 and another $17 million in 2019, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The country currently has 12 firms lobbying for its interests, according to the center.
Although it formally launched only today, DAWN has already been actively advocating for its priorities.
Earlier this month the group joined 15 other groups in a letter to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and other leaders of major cities around the world urging them not to attend this week’s “Urban 20” summit of mayors in Saudi Arabia, which is hosting the G20 Summit in November (de Blasio pulled out last week). And last month, DAWN joined 18 other groups in urging to World Trade Organization member nations to reject Saudi Arabia’s pick to lead the organization, former minister of Economy and Planning Mohammad Maziad al-Tuwaijri.
DAWN has also publicly identified 10 state agents from Saudi Arabia and Egypt that it accuses of human rights violations, including judges and prosecutors.
“We hope to put the spotlight on these bad actors,” said research director Abdullah Alaoudh. “We also hope to be the basis for future legal actions against these bad actors.”
The group has forged close ties to influential lawmakers, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee member and Senate Human Rights Caucus co-founder Chris Coons (D-Del.). Last year Coons introduced legislation along with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C) to punish Saudi leaders found responsible for Khashoggi’s murder. The bill passed the House but stalled in the Senate.
“I greatly appreciate your launching this organization to help hold accountable the United States government, all of us in government, and in particular the Trump administration for the ways in which it has put human rights on its back foot and put economic and military interests first,” Coons said in pre-recorded remarks. “As you well now, in the long run the Middle East and North Africa , the United States relationships in the region, and our interests, are best served by putting democracy and human rights first.”