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New York City mayor boycotts summit in Saudi Arabia over rights concerns

Coalition of human rights groups urges world city mayors to speak out 'against injustices' and boycott summit, which is part of G20
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio attends 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York on 11 September (AFP/File photo)

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is pulling out of a G20 world cities summit to be hosted by Saudi Arabia at the end of the month after rights groups called for a boycott.  

De Blasio announced his withdrawal from the virtual summit in a statement on Thursday, citing ethical concerns, and urged other mayors to follow suit.

'We must stand united for combating climate change, advancing peace and protecting human rights. I urge my colleagues in other global cities to join me in withdrawing from this year's U20 summit and demanding progress'

- Bill de Blasio, NYC Mayor

A global coalition of human rights groups earlier this week called on the leaders of some of the world's biggest cities to boycott the event, which is set to be held on the second anniversary of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

"The global Covid-19 pandemic has shown just how crucial it is for cities across the world to work together while standing up for what's right. We cannot lead the world without speaking out against injustices," de Blasio said.

"We must stand united for combating climate change, advancing peace and protecting human rights. I urge my colleagues in other global cities to join me in withdrawing from this year's [Urban 20] summit and demanding progress."

De Blasio has criticised the kingdom in the past, once describing the Saudi-led war in Yemen as brutal and immoral. 

Call to boycott

Riyadh's Urban 20 (U20) summit is being held as part of the kingdom's chairmanship of this year's G20. In addition to de Blasio, among those invited are London Mayor Sadiq Khan, Berlin Mayor Michael Muller, and Paris's Anne Hidalgo, as well as the mayors of Los Angeles and Madrid.

Still, a coalition of 16 rights groups, including Action Corps, CodePink, Freedom Forward, the Geneva-based MENA Rights Group, Just Foreign Policy and the London-based ALQST, have all called on city leaders to rethink the event. 

In letters sent to scheduled attendees, the coalition warned that Saudi Arabia, "as an absolute monarchy without any form of meaningful democratic representation, has a long record of silencing the very voices that are necessary for a meaningful global conversation".

"Saudi Arabia's brutal record has only intensified since Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) became crown prince in 2017," the groups said. 

Rights groups urge mayors of world capitals to boycott Saudi summit
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The coalition also called on the kingdom to take immediate measures to end human rights violations, including pursuing real justice in the case of Khashoggi and releasing jailed activists.

Riyadh recently overturned five death sentences previously issued against the killers of Khashoggi in a final ruling that jailed eight defendants for seven and 20 years.

None of the defendants was identified and the final court ruling sparked an international outcry, with UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings Agnes Callamard and Khashoggi's fiancee both condemning the verdict.

"Human rights and civil society norms are under threat across the world," the groups said. "G20 delegations have an obligation to ensure that G20 meetings are not used by host governments to obscure or hide their own repressive and environmentally destructive practices."

On Thursday, Code Pink lauded de Blasio's decision to skip the summit, urging other mayors to do the same.

"Just because the president and weapons manufacturers are complicit in the violence perpetrated by the Saudi monarchy doesn’t mean our cities need to be," Code Pink Yemen campaign manager Danaka Katovich said in the email to NYC supporters.

"Yemen has endured over five years of air raids and blockade. As the suffering of Yemenis continue at the hands of MBS, no mayor should agree to participate in the summit."