A preliminary report was released on Thursday as the result of an independent international human rights inquiry led by United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings Agnes Callamard into the killing of prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi. According to the UN report, which builds on information obtained from Turkish government authorities, the evidence suggests Khashoggi “was the victim of a brutal and premeditated killing, planned and perpetrated by officials of the State of Saudi Arabia.” The report states that Khashoggi’s murder was a “violation of the most fundamental of all rights, the right to life,” while Saudi Arabia “seriously curtailed and undermined” Turkish authorities’ ability to investigate at its consulate. The report raises concerns about criminal accountability and Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic immunity, calling for further evidence and a stand against the abuse of human rights and international law.
Reactions have expressed hope that the inquiry will lead to more. Turkey, by way of Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, has called for the UN to launch a formal international investigation or establish special fact-finding committee, in furtherance of Callamard’s inquiry. Sigurd Neubauer, a Middle East analyst based in Washington, D.C., told Al Jazeera that it remains to be seen how the UN’s investigation is internationally received, especially by the US, a key Saudi ally. Balkees Jarrah, a Senior Counsel at Human Rights Watch, said that “‘there are hopes that her [Callamard’s] report lays a crucial foundation to bring those responsible for Khashoggi’s brutal murder to account, including any officials behind the killing.” According to Merve Tahiroglu, a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Turkey, which invited Callamard’s inquiry, has used Khashoggi’s death to “hurt Riyadh diplomatically.” Tahiroglu stated to Al Jazeera that the inquiry “‘offers another route for achieving this.” Meanwhile, in a joint statement, the Human Rights Watch and other NGOs called for further accountability and transparency in the same vein as Callamard’s report.
The independent inquiry initiated by Special Rapporteur Callamard is the first step toward fully investigating and understanding the implications of Khashoggi’s killing. The UN report formally and independently brings to light that Saudi Arabia has already interfered with Turkey’s compliance with international law to properly investigate the extrajudicial execution, in addition to its so far having refused to participate in the Special Rapporteur’s inquiry. Moreover, the report brings attention to fundamental questions raised with respect to the nature of cross-border criminal accountability and to state sovereignty and international law: Saudi Arabia has not been transparent about its own investigation, while Turkey views Khashoggi’s killing as a “violation of national sovereignty and a matter of national security,” as Saudi Arabia uses diplomatic immunity to hinder the investigation and commit human rights abuse. The report rightfully states that Khashoggi’s killing represents a “pattern of killings globally of journalists, human rights defenders, activists and opponents of various governments,” going further to state that “[t]he fate of those who dare to criticize their government’s policies and practices hangs in the balance of the international community response to Khashoggi’s murder.”
In October 2018, Khashoggi disappeared after entering the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who had resided in the U.S., and who had originally been an advisor to the Saudi government and close to the Saudi royal family, had been vocally critical of the Saudi government and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. After multiple contradictory explanations regarding Khashoggi’s disappearance, the Saudi government finally acknowledged that Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate, though his remains have yet to be found. Saudi Arabia denies the Crown Prince’s involvement, instead alleging “rogue” elements to have acted independently. In January, Saudi Arabia commenced a murder trial of 11 individuals over Khashoggi’s murder. In late January, the UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard’s team traveled to Turkey, stating that it sought to establish states and individuals’ responsibilities for the killings after implications of high-level Saudi involvement. The UN investigation continues, with a final report expected in June.
Ultimately, this UN report is only a first step; it is necessary for the international community to take greater action, building on the report’s calls for action. It is up to states themselves to acknowledge the need and push for greater transparency and accountability. The UN, and the states that comprise the UN, must act to signal to Saudi Arabia that the current secrecy surrounding Khashoggi’s killing cannot be tolerated. The UN can support a larger investigation, establish a fact-finding committee, or vote to suspend Saudi Arabia from the UN Human Rights Council. States can initiate boycotts to help compel Saudi Arabia to take positive action. The international community must recognize its obligation to stand up to Saudi Arabia’s actions and to understand the implications for international law, sovereignty, and security. The international community must compel Saudi Arabia, which has exhibited a pattern of domestic and international human rights abuse to cooperate, through action, which may in the long run help to curb the country’s overall abuse. Fuller investigation is necessary to help resolve tensions between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which sees the situation as a matter of national security and sovereignty; it is necessary for the defense of human rights and for supporting the international legal system, on which international peace and security rest.