I recently wrote on the blog about the obligation of states, arising from their duty to protect the right to life under human rights law, to warn individuals subject to their jurisdiction of any real and immediate risk to their life, bodily integrity, or liberty and security of person, posed by foreign intelligence services. That duty arises if the state knows, or ought to know, of such a threat, i.e. if the threat is reasonably foreseeable to it. I’ve argued in that regard how it cannot be conclusively established, but may be so established after further factual inqury, that the United States or Turkey had enough relevant information in their possession to trigger their protective obligation with regard to Jamal Khashoggi and the threat posed to his life by agents of Saudi Arabia. If that obligation was triggered, however, the duty to warn Khashoggi arose, whereas no such warning was given to him before his assassination in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
As I have explained in my previous post, and in more detail in my full paper, the duty to warn does not impose unreasonable burdens on states engaged in intelligence-gathering activities. First, it is subject to a jurisdictional threshold, which may be looser, per the Human Rights Committee’s new functional approach to the extraterritorial application of the right to life, or stricter, per the more traditional spatial or personal conceptions of jurisdiction. Opinions will clearly differ in this regard as to which approach should prevail. The key point here, however, is that a state lacking the capacity to fulfil the duty to warn will never be expected to have to do so. Second, the duty will only be engaged if a specific unlawful threat to the life of an individual was reasonably foreseeable to the state. Third, the duty to warn is one of due diligence, and the state can take a number of relevant considerations into account in deciding on how to fulfil it. It might, for example, choose to convey the substance of the threat in a way that will avoid any risk of compromising intelligence-gathering sources and methods. It might choose to do so through an intermediary, such as a relevant agency of a partner state. In the vast majority of conceivable circumstances the state will be able to convey a warning without compromising its essential interests in any meaningful way. Granted, the state will have to devote some resources towards actually complying with the obligation. But such an expectation is not unreasonable, especially bearing in mind that this rather modest burden will usually fall on the wealthiest, most powerful states in possession of an extensive foreign intelligence apparatus, whose ultimate purpose should after all be the safeguarding of human life.
Importantly, in the past month or so, the CIA and partner security services have actually warned three associaties of Khashoggi of a Saudi threat against them, demonstrating that the duty to warn does not, in fact, impose unreasonable burdens on state authorities and that it can effectively be complied with.
First, after obtaining information about a specific threat from the CIA, the Norwegian security services warned a prominent Arab pro-democracy activist and vocal critic of the Saudi crown prince, who has been granted asylum and is living in Norway. As the Guardian reports: