The Murder of Jamal Khashoggi: The UN, Human Rights and International Law

jamal khashoggi, Jamal Khashoggi, journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Journalist Khashoggi, khashoggi murder, murder of Jamal Khashoggi, UN, United Nations, International law, basic human rights, human rights, human rights watch, Saudi Arabia, press freedom, embassies, consulates, diplomatic relations, diplomatic immunity,
This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series The Murder of Jamal Khashoggi: Why We Should Care

Killing Jamal Khashoggi is no big deal for Saudi Arabia. But it isn’t completely free to do whatever it wants. It’s easier to get away with violating human rights within one’s own country than with breaking UN international law.

jamal khashoggi, Jamal Khashoggi, journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Journalist Khashoggi, khashoggi murder, murder of Jamal Khashoggi, UN, United Nations, International law, basic human rights, human rights, human rights watch, Saudi Arabia, press freedom, embassies, consulates, diplomatic relations, diplomatic immunity,Human Rights in Saudi Arabia

(10-29-2018)  The Basic Law of Governance does not guarantee basic rights, such as the freedom of belief, expression, assembly, or political participation. Article 26 states that the State shall protect human rights in accordance with the Sharia. In reality they violate even the rights referred to in the Basic Law of Governance. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia has been a member of the United Nations since 1945 and is signatory to (most of) several conventions and treaties, among others the Arab Charter for Human Rights and the Convention Against Torture. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has two government-supported human-rights organizations to promote and document human-rights issues – the National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) and the Saudi Council for Human Rights. They report directly to the royal court and they can communicate and investigate human rights in various governmental bodies. Several non-governmental and independent human-rights organizations also operate on the ground or online. They mostly collect data and document human-rights violations and promote human rights across Saudi society.

Press (un)freedom in Saudi Arabia

The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Saudi Arabia third in the top ten of most censored countries, outdone only by Eritrea and North Korea. On the Press Freedom Index, published annually by Reporters Without Borders, Saudi Arabia ranks 169th out of 180 countries in 2018.  (Incidentally, the US ranks 43rd.) The Saudi royals, the government (with royals in most of the important positions) and the religious establishment stay in power by maintaining strict censorship on all forms of media, and prohibiting any forms of dissent, or anything that is culturally or religiously inappropriate. Saudi Arabia has an official Internet blacklist of over 400,000 websites, including political, religious, and pornographic sites.

Those who do use the media to express their (negative) opinions about members of the official religious establishments or religion in general, the royal family or governmental officials, are often punished. Many journalists practice self-censorship to avoid any risk of causing ire. Foreign journalists who report from within Saudi Arabia are always accompanied by official minders, who in turn report to the government on their work.

In 2017, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 46 journalists were killed worldwide, of whom it could be confirmed that they were killed because they were journalists. They were killed by government officials, military officials, paramilitary groups, criminal groups, political groups, mob violence, local residents and unknown fire. So the murder of Jamal Khashoggi wasn’t unique. Nor is it altogether surprising, either, in the context of Saudi Arabia’s strict censorship.

Will Saudi Arabia get away with it? As I mentioned in the previous post, this series of posts is in answer to the question: Jamal Khashoggi was a Saudi citizen, killed by Saudis on Saudi territory, so why should America care? In that first post we looked at the murder in relation to Saudi law. But countries aren’t actually completely free to do whatever they want. They can be held to account.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In 1948, a few years after World War Two and the atrocities committed by the Nazis, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Saudi Arabia is one of only eight countries that didn’t vote for the UDHR in 1948. Now they are the only country that openly opposes the declaration, primarily because they object to the freedom of religion cause; they claim that Sharia provides superior human rights protection. However, the UN still considers Saudi Arabia committed to uphold the human rights standards of the UDHR, since it is a member.

Under the UDHR, press freedom is considered part of freedom of opinion and expression. It’s in Article 19:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

The United Nations considers  the freedom to express opinions and ideas one of the basic human rights — one of the foundation stones of democratic society. A person can’t form an opinion or cast an informed vote without information and conversation, for example. Journalists provide a vital part of that information, so press freedom is an essential part of the freedom to express opinions and ideas. The freedom of opinion and expression is included in four conventions, which have all been ratified by at least 169 of 197 countries, so it’s now considered  a norm of customary international law (law based on international practices and customs, rather than written in any stand-alone conventions or treaties).

Here are some of the other basic human rights that are relevant to Jamal Khashoggi’s killing as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Article 9:”[N]o one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile.” In Saudi Arabia criticizing anyone or anything related to the government or the royals in the media is a crime, but the UN considers it press freedom. Arresting Khashoggi — if you can call it that — for practicing a basic human right is pretty arbitrary.

Article 10:”[E]veryone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.” There was no independent and impartial tribunal, and there was obviously nothing fair and public about Khashoggi’s torture and murder in the Saudi Consulate.

Article 11: [Everyone is entitled] “to defend himself in person or through legal assistance of his own choosing.”  Khashoggi did not have a lawyer when he was “interrogated” at the consulate.

Article 14(3)(g): [No one shall] “be compelled to testify against himself or to confess guilt.”  I’d say that rules out torture.

International Law

So those are the basic human rights the Saudis violated when they killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But that’s not all. The UN creates actual international laws that regulate countries’interactions, to protect the stability of countries and to keep interstate relations as peaceful as possible. Sometimes countries get away with breaking these laws, but impunity can’t be assumed as easily as when violating human rights within one’s own country.

Apparently, consulates are not considered territory of the country they represent. In this article, Steven Ratner explains how the Saudis broke two important rules of international law when they killed Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Turkey.

First rule: A country can’t enforce its laws and policies in another country without its permission, because a) it violates the ban on intervention in the internal affairs of other states; and b) it violates the ban on use of force by one country in another. Sometimes extraterritorial enforcement is forgiven; for instance, Argentina forgave Israel for kidnapping the Holocaust criminal Eichmann in 1960. Murder, however, is a whole different ball game. And Khashoggi’s murder was not just a killing on Turkish soil.

Second rule: Foreign embassies and consulates in host countries must be used for diplomatic purposes and the staff must respect the laws of the host country. In exchange, the host countries must grant the staff diplomatic or consular immunity and they can’t enter the buildings without consent. This is a vital rule that allows communication channels to remain open even when relations are tense between two countries. Of course folks get away with breaking this rule as well; for one thing, lots of countries spy on one another via their diplomatic buildings. But when someone is killed, the offending persons are usually prosecuted if possible, like the Georgian diplomat who killed a teen in a car crash in Maryland in 1997. His diplomatic immunity did not protect him in that case.

Since murdering Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Turkey broke these two rules of international law, the question whether Saudi Arabia gets away with it is relevant for those countries who would love to do the same to their own dissidents on foreign soil, and it’s relevant for every country that doesn’t want this to happen regularly, as it would seriously destabilize the sovereignty of nations.

Everyone is looking at America, to see what Trump does. He did nothing when Mohammed bin Salman barred Jamal Khashoggi from the Saudi media in his name. Will he uphold international law now by insisting on justice? Or will he let this slide? Will he give Saudi Arabia and other countries that don’t respect the rule of law and basic human rights license to do this more often?

My bet is on the latter, if it was solely up to Trump.


  • 10 Most Censored Countries. Committee to Protect Journalists. Infoplease, 2017.
  • 46 Journalists Killed in 2017  — Motive Confirmed. Committee to Protect Journalists, 2018.
  • 2018 World Press Freedom Index. Reporters Without Borders, 2018.
  • Howie, Emily. Protecting the human right to freedom of expression in international law. Abstract. International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, Volume 20, 2018 – Issue 1: November 10, 2017. Taylor & Francis Online.
  • Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (Country Files).
  • International Human Rights Standards. Human Rights Watch, 1997.
  • Ratner, Steven. The Khashoggi Murder: How Mohammed Bin Salman Underestimated International Law. (International Law) LAWFARE, October 22, 2018.
  • Saudi Arabia: Human Rights Developments.

Header image:

Series Navigation<< Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi Killed by Saudis in Saudi Consulate. So?

One thought on “The Murder of Jamal Khashoggi: The UN, Human Rights and International Law

What are your thoughts?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.