The murder of Jamal Khashoggi is in many respects a truly extraordinary case. But it is by no means unique – authoritarian states assassinate journalists and political dissidents with some frequency. The use of consular premises as the scene of the killing is, of course, one special feature of this affair. And while diplomatic and consular privileges and immunities are abused all the time, this is not normally done in so spectacular a fashion.
What makes Khashoggi’s killing so fascinating from the standpoint of an international legal analysis is the interplay between the human right to life and the rules of diplomatic and consular law. However, as I have explained, most of the possible norm conflicts between immunities and the right to life could have been avoided in Khashoggi’s case. This is primarily because Khashoggi was killed on the premises of a consulate and not those of a diplomatic mission, and because consular privileges and immunities are significantly weaker than diplomatic ones.
It is therefore unclear why Turkey acted as if international law laid such obstacles in front of it, when in doing so it actually exposed itself to legal liability under IHRL for failing to effectively investigate Khashoggi’s death. There are several possible explanations. First, Turkey could have genuinely misunderstood the legal position, failing to appreciate the attenuated nature of consular immunities. The confusion of consular privileges and immunities with the more expansive diplomatic versions has certainly been pervasive in the coverage of the Khashoggi affair. In fact, in a speech in parliament President Erdogan lamented the fact that the ‘Vienna Convention’ – he did not specify which – inhibited the investigation through the ‘diplomatic immunity’ it provided for, commenting that it may need to be reviewed or revised.