22 July 2019

The UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions presented the conclusions and recommendations regarding the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi

Niculae Iancu

The “Report of the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions: the investigation into the unlawful death of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi” was published on June 19. The UN special rapporteur is France’s Agnes Callamard, an UN expert in human rights and the director of the Columbia University’s global freedom of speech program in the United States. The report presents conclusions and recommendations regarding the execution of Jamal Khassogi, the Saudi journalist from the prestigious Washington Post, which unsettled relations between Washington and Riyadh at the end of last year, in a very complicated external context regarding security in the Middle East. The report is found on the agenda of UN Human Rights Council’s session between June 24 and July 12, 2019.

Image source: Mediafax

Some context markers

The Defence and Security Monitor extensively addressed journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s violent death at end of last year, which happened inside the headquarters of Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. The subject was widely covered by media throughout the entire world, taking into account its sensibility for bilateral relations between Washington and Riyadh, which are decisive for the dynamic of the regional balance of power in the Middle East, in a geographic space which includes Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Israel, but also the huge interests of the US, Russia, the EU and, most recently, China.

Most of the scenarios we anticipated would later be confirmed by information surfaced in the past couple of months. Although limited, the investigations of Turkish authorities led to the conclusion that the Salman regime was involved in Khashoggi’s summary execution. Back when the crisis unfolded, Turkish investigators leaked damning information for the Saudi part from within the investigation. Later, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made direct accusations towards Riyadh, in a speech before the Turkish Parliament, where he said that the “order was given from the highest level of responsibility from within the Saudi government” and that “certain officials tried to cover up the crime”. Despite all this, Ankara tried to avoid an escalation of tensions with Riyadh and thoroughly respected the time and space constraints imposed on its investigation in the interior of Saudi diplomatic buildings in Istanbul.

Riyadh’s credibility before the international community has continued to erode lately, during a critical period for the security of the Middle East. The slightly liberal political and social reforms timidly enacted in the past couple of years by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in a thoroughly conservative society, were overshadowed by serious suspicions of repeated human rights violations and limiting freedom of speech for the regime’s peaceful critics.

Pressure exerted by the international community, and especially by the United States, on the Saudi government caused a change of attitude in Riyadh, which went from totally denying any involvement to recognizing the crime and bringing individuals considered guilty of it to court, even if Agnes Callamard’s report considers these measures absolutely insufficient. Washington adopted a series of sanctions targeting Saudi officials, while the Khashoggi case would also affect the support US granted to the Saudi military campaign in Yemen and the arms trade worth hundreds of billions of dollars between the two countries. An example in this regard is the US Congress recently blocking a munitions sale to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates worth eight billion dollars, because of the death of the Saudi journalist, despite arguments by the Trump Administration that the sale was justified by the critical escalation of tensions in the region, due to the presumed aggressive conduct of Iran.

The report’s main conclusions

The UN Special rapporteur’s investigation lasted almost half an year and presents the entire sequence of events in detail, from the date when Khashoggi assumed his self-exile to the United States, in September 2017, until international sanctions were imposed for the Riyadh regime, de facto led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is considered the main culprit for the “crime”. The report contains a set of conclusions which lay out the causes of the crime and reflects the attitude and the manner in which all sides acted, regardless of whether they chose to become involved or not with clarifying the circumstances which led to such a serious incident.

1. The death of Jamal Khashoggi is a crime for which Saudi Arabia is responsible. Even the supposed failed kidnapping of the journalist would have been in violation of international human rights laws. From the perspective of these laws, the Saudi state’s responsibility does not depend, for example, on the names of the officials who ordered Khashoggi’s murder, on whether a kidnapping which devolved into an accidental murder happened or if the agents involved acted out of their own initiative or by exceeding the limits of the mandate they were granted by authorities.

2. There is sufficient proof to support extending of investigations into the individual responsibility of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder, as he and other high Saudi officials possibly abused the power granted by their authority roles.

3. The two official investigations carried out by Turkish and Saudi authorities did not respect international standards for this type of cases. It can be presumed that Saudi officials performed their investigation over ten days, which is the duration for which investigators were present at the consulate, following which very few details regarding the information they gathered was made public; for example, there was no mention of the journalist’s bodily remains.

Later, Saudi Arabi made timid steps towards establishing the truth, with measures taken until the present being more the result of international pressure. The ongoing trial in Riyadh targets 11 individuals accused of Khashoggi’s murder. The hearings take place behind closed doors, but there are sufficient reasons to consider that no high-level official from the Saudi government will be prosecuted. According to the special rapporteur, the Saudi government invited representatives from Turkey and the permanent members of the UN Security Council to take part in some of the hearings, under a non-disclosure agreement. In Callamard’s view, this agreement affects the credibility of the idea that judicial standards are respected, and they could make the Security Council an accomplice in the situation where legal procedures fail to be applied. The report recommends the suspensions of the 11 suspects’ trial.

On the other hand, a special mention made by the UN rapporteur refers to allowing the access of Turkish investigators to the Saudi consulate, even if authorities in Riyadh were not legally obliged to permit it. The duration of the presence of Turkish investigators was limited to six hours in the consulate building and 13 hours at the general consul’s home, which Callamard considered insufficient in order to collect relevant data. This could lead to the perception that Ankara’s investigation was obstructed, especially as the two locations would have been previously “cleaned” by the Saudi’s to remove any incriminating tracks. It should also be noted that the UN’s special rapporteur considers that Turkey acted with reserve in the matter, probably to avoid the situation escalating for political reasons. Furthermore, Callamard “regrets the fact that no international organism or other state never expressed their intention to mediate the two sides in order to ensure prompt and efficient access to the crime scene”. She adds that “UN member states put their strategic and national interest first”, at the expense of protecting human rights and assuming the consequences of eventual repressive measure from Riyadh as a response. Even the United Nations considered that “there are no obvious reasons to intervene or that they did it deliberately”.

4. There is insufficient proof to support the idea that Turkey or the United States would have known or were supposed to know about the existence of a real or imminent threat to Jamal Khashoggi’s life. What seems to be certain is that if Khashoggi had returned to Saudi Arabia, of his own volition or not, he would have been detained and probably disappeared, or his physical integrity would have been endangered. At the same time, there is no proof that US authorities intercepted communications from the Saudi crown prince, or that such recording were analysed before the Saudi journalist’s death.

5. Saudi Arabia has yet to publicly recognize its government’s involvement in Khashoggi’s murder and has not offered apologies to his family, friends or colleagues for his death and for the circumstances it took place in. The special rapporteur obtained information regarding the existence of financial compensations offered to Khashoggi’s descendants, but expressed doubts regarding the manner such compensation is covered by international human rights laws.

6. The Khashoggi case highlighted the vulnerabilities of dissidents living abroad and the risks they are exposed to from the perspective of operations which target them, which are carried out covertly by authorities in their native country or third parties associated with them. States which offer the right of residence for dissidents have the obligation to respect their rights and protect them against violent actions from their native countries.

The Saudi government’s reaction

Officials in Riyad criticized the report’s conclusions. Its foreign minister, Adel al-Juberir said in an interview for CNN that the document does not present anything new, as it “reiterates what has been published and circulated in the media” until now. Saudi authorities consider that “the only relevant authority to solve the case is royal justice” and that the UN rapporteur “acted without a warrant” and her report is “defective and full of contradictions”, as results from the presumably incorrect statement that the ongoing Saudi trial is “classified”. As what concerns establishing the truth, the Saudis “vehemently reject any attempt to undermine the kingdom’s authority or deviate the case from its judicial course”.

Therefore, the conclusions of Callamard’s  reports are unacceptable for Riyadh, with the Saudi foreign minister restating the fact that “Khashoggi’s death was an terrible crime committed without any authorization”, and the individuals involved will be “punished”. Saudi prosecutors requested the death sentence for five of the eleven suspects. Al-Jubeir added that the procedures of Saudi Arabia’s secret service were revised, and mechanism were adopted which would “not allow these kinds of situations to happen in the future”. It should also be mentioned that the highest prosecuted official is Ahmad Hassan Mohammad Asiri, a former deputy of the General Information Directorate’s chief, considered to be a friend of the crown prince, and also a former spokesman for the Saudi-led international coalition in the Yemen War.

Initially, Saudi Arabia vehemently dismissed any involvement in the crime. Even since first information regarding Khashoggi’s disappearance appeared, Saudi officials said that he left the Istanbul consulate alive and unharmed. Later on, as incriminating evidence continued to pile up, authorities in Riyadh changed their stance several times, until they recognized the tragedy, which they deemed as an “accident” caused by “violent agents” who acted with “disproportionate force” and “exceeding the mandate they were given”.


The report offers the clearest image until now of the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which took place at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, in the afternoon hours of October 2, 2018. The document’s conclusions, currently on the agenda of the UN Human Rights’ Council, indicates the direct involvement of the Riyadh regime, especially of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in coordinating the operations which led to the unfortunate outcome.

According to Callamard, Saudi Arabia should have publicly apologized to Jamal Khashoggi’s family, friends and colleagues for his execution. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia should undergo reforms to ensure that such events will never repeat and liberate all the individuals currently jailed for accusations which violate fundamental human rights and the peaceful expression of personal opinions and beliefs.

Callamard also appeals to all UN member states to adopt sanctions against high-ranked Saudi officials which are found guilty of violating human rights and murdering Jamal Khashoggi. At the same time, the report contains recommendations for UN Security Council members, who should especially analyse the implications of Khashoggi’s execution on peace and stability, and also address the general issue of extraterritorial pursuits of targeted individuals. Additionally, Agnes Callamard considers that the UN Human Rights Council or the UN General Assembly should establish a permanent mechanism to investigate accusations of murder or other violent acts against journalists, human rights activists and other targeted individuals. In practical terms, The UN Human Rights Council should establish a special team to execute quick response missions in collaboration with local authorities, to support and ensure correct and complete investigations in situations similar to the Khashoggi case.

Jamal Khashoggi’s violent death reignited debates on the importance of the values of liberal democracy and individual liberties in the context of sensible security problems, even during a period of aggressive re-affirmation of the traditional-realistic power marks. The fact that the Khashoggi case was so complex brought it into the attention of the entire world, and set it as a main agenda point for institutions responsible with overseeing and imposing the international system’s laws and regulations. Jamal Khashoggi’s Saudi nationality, his profession, his self-imposed US exile and residency, his violent disappearance on Turkish territory, the Middle East wars, the political and economic subtexts of relations between the involved sides, all of these represent just as many argument to capitalize on the moment in order to adopt systemic changes which would potentially prevent similar crises from happening in the future.

Translated by Ionut Preda