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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 13 New Delhi March 16, 2019

State Murderers of Jamal Khashogi and their Cohorts Must Not Get Away

Sunday 17 March 2019


by Gautam Sen

Jamal Ahmed Khashoggi, a journalist of the Washington Post newspaper of the USA, was brutally and in a unique diabolical manner, put to death on October 2, 2018 when he went to obtain documents connected with his proposed marriage with his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cenghiz. The incident occurred inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, and was executed by a hit squad of the Saudi Government headed by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBD), specially sent to Istanbul to execute this heinous mission. Though Khashoggi had a working relationship with the Saudi Government earlier, of late the relations had soured owing to his incisive criticism of Riyadh’s policies and human rights record. MBD had obviously found the trenchant criticism intolerable, particularly from of a Saudi citizen having considerable sway over public opinion in the USA. However, what has stupefied public opinion at the international level is the audacity of the act of premeditated murder of its own citizen, its viciousness, under state sponsorship. Khashoggi was lured into the Saudi consulate while his fiancée waited outside, killed by strangulation, his dead body cut into pieces and then, dissolved in acid by the Saudi Government’s assassins to eliminate all traces of his existence.

The USA has been and still remains one of the close political and strategic allies of Saudi Arabia. President Trump and his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, have brazenly defended the Saudi regime of MBD, in a laughable manner by stating that MBD ‘may or may not’ have known about the murder, while the US Government’s intelligence establishment is reportedly in possession of details sufficiently corroborating to the Saudi Government’s complicity at the highest decision-making level with monitored evidence picked by the USA’s ally, Turkey, with its suspicions flagged. This only indicates that immediate strategic considerations have out-weighed the Trump Administration’s commit-ment towards the principles of human rights and those on which the UN is founded, lack of concern for the brazen violation of the UN Human Rights Convention and even internationally accepted norms of functioning of foreign missions and stipulated behaviour. The ghastly murder was carried out by the Saudi Government through its functionaries and murder squad within its Istanbul consulate and diplomats’ premises in gross contempt of diplomatic conventions and, most importantly, of the Geneva Convention on Diplomatic Relations of April, 1961—particularly its Articles 4(1) and (3), proscribing misuse of diplomatic privileges and immunities. The saving grace is the ensuing huge condemnation within the USA, including strong criticism by political leaders like Senator Jim Rish, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and other Senators and Congressmen who have opined that while Saudi Arabia was a strategically important ally, the alliance must be reconciled with American values.

International outcry has also been extensive. The latest condemnation of the Khashoggi murder has come from Agnes Callamard of France, the articulate UN Human Rights Council-appointed rapporteur on extra-judicial, summary and arbitrary executions. The Khashoggi episode is ominously unique in many respects. First of all, no country, which is part of the UN system, has resorted such state-conducted gory assassination of its own citizen in a diplomatic mission abroad. Secondly, this is a case of aggressive and murderous behaviour of a set of foreign government functionaries in ‘cloak-and-dagger‘ fashion in a third country in subversion of the norms of diplomatic immunity and behaviour guaranteed under international law and conventions. Thirdly, this is a case of brazen violation of domestic law of the host country by the country which perpetrated the murder. Finally, it is a case of extreme anti-humanitarian behaviour of the country which engineered the diabolical act against Khashoggi, an international journalist, and an assault against freedom of expression. Special rapporteur Callamard has opined that the Khashogi incident is part of a well-evidenced killing globally of journalists, other human rights defenders, activists and opponents of various regimes. It will be of essence for the international community, and particularly for countries which uphold the tenets of freedom of expression, humanitarianism and codified norms of orderly diplomatic behaviour, to counter the challenge posed by MBD and his regressive regime. An opportunity will arise when the Callamard report is presented to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2019.

In such matters, institutions like the Inter-national Criminal Court (ICC) operating under the Rome statute, need to play a decisive role. The UN and its principal organs like the General Assembly and Economic and Social Council, and specialised agencies like the UN Human Rights Council, should also work as part of a continuum to build a strong consensual framework at the international level to counter such nefarious acts of oppressive regimes. The bane of international law is its dependence on conventions and sustainability on consent of nation-states. Nation-states showing arrogance, suppressing its own people, rogue behaviour and defiance of international law, need to be placed under a sanctions regime in the interest of humanity and orderly state conduct. This requires political will on the part of the international community, and particularly of the major powers or groups like the USA, China, Russia and the European Union. India, because of its democratic ethos, commitment to norms of orderly international behaviour and adherence to human rights, could play a positive supportive role in the matter. However, overriding strategic concerns or implications on other state interests tend to impinge on such matters. Dependence of many states on imports of Saudi Arabian oil will tend to mute criticism of the MBD regime and its anti-humanitarian acts.

While acts of illegitimate detention of protesters, torture and murders by the state and under state sponsorship are per se abhorrent, inhuman behaviour outside the territorial confines of a state also need to be proscribed as per democratic norms and international conventions in force, and prevented. Such acts on foreign soil have an added dimension, which is a matter of serious concern and adversely impinges on state sovereignty. This aspect, specifically, requires careful appraisal. Such acts have been condoned and rationalised by states in the past apropos their national security interests, particularly during major war periods and in the subsequent Cold War era. State deployed espionage agents have on many occasions been apprehended and put to serious torture and death. Many states will have reservations against attempts to impose an international control regime on them, related to and impacting their state sovereignty. However, a differentiated approach is necessary to constrict and control rabid anti-humanitarian state activities against proponents of democratic values like Jamal Khashoggi, as carried out by the MBD regime‘s functionaries, on foreign soil, particularly in its diplomatic missions.

The norms of functioning of foreign missions consequently require a revamp and, if a forward movement can be achieved through the instrumentality of the Callamard report to the UNHRC, that will be a gain for the world community and citizenry of many countries. However, the personal losses of people like that of Khashoggi‘s Turkish fiancée and quite a few others like her from countries oppressed by tyrannical regimes, need to be redressed through an expanded ambit of institutions like International Criminal Court.        

The author is a retired senior IDAS officer who has served the Union and State governments in India. The views expressed in the article are personal.

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