On 2 October 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi journalist residing in the United States, where he was a columnist for the Washington Post, was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He was visiting the consulate to obtain a certificate of divorce from his former wife, so that he could proceed to marry his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, who was waiting for him in a car outside the consulate. According to media reports relying on the findings of the governments of Turkey and the United States, Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents and his body was then dismembered with a bone saw; his remains are yet to be found.
It has now been six months since Khashoggi’s killing. Saudi Arabia is conducting a secret trial of 11 individuals accused of his murder; the trial is widely regarded as an attempt to whitewash the involvement in the killing of the highest levels of the Saudi government. The UN Special Rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard, has launched an investigation into Kashoggi’s death as part of her mandate; as of the time of writing, she has published a set of preliminary observations and plans to submit a final report to the UN Human Rights Council in June. Her report, based inter alia on a field visit to Turkey, concluded (paras. 10 and 7) that the evidence ‘demonstrates a prime facie case that Mr. Khashoggi was the victim of a brutal and premeditated killing, planned and perpetrated by officials of the State of Saudi Arabia and others acting under the direction of these State agents,’ a ‘grave violation’ of the human right to life.
Some legal issues that arise in that regard are trivial, even if they are politically extremely controversial. For example, it is legally irrelevant whether, in fact, the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s death or not. Per the customary rule codified in Article 7 of the ILC Articles on State Responsibility, Saudi Arabia incurs state responsibility for an internationally wrongful act committed by its organs acting in their official capacity, such as intelligence and state security officials, even if that act was committed ultra vires. Whether the crown prince’s underlings exceeded his orders or failed to inform him of the supposedly unauthorized operation – which involved a team of 15 agents, including a forensics expert specializing in rapid dissections, and two private jets – simply does not affect the attribution of, and hence responsibility for, the operation to Saudi Arabia.
It is similarly unquestionable, as Steve Ratner explained on Lawfare, that the Saudi operation against Khashoggi was a violation of Turkey’s sovereignty and of its rights under diplomatic and consular law. But while condemning Saudi Arabia for these violations would be both right and without difficulty, for international law to care only about the violations of the rights of the state in which he was killed would also profoundly fail to legally capture our sense of moral outrage over Khashoggi’s death. In addition to any criminal responsibility that may exist under either Turkish or Saudi domestic law, the most serious violation of international law at stake here is that of Khashoggi’s human right to life, and an attempt – ultimately unsuccessful due to the operation’s public exposure – to forcibly disappear him. This violation is compounded by that of the freedom of expression, since the reason for Khashoggi’s killing was his speech critical of the Saudi regime, and that of the prohibition of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment regarding Khashoggi’s next of kin, due to the manner of his killing and the desecration and disappearance of his corpse.