The Khashoggi report to the UN Human Rights Council and the Rights to Life of Journalists

On Wednesday, 25 June, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings and Summary Executions, Agnes Callamard, presented her annual report to the UN Human Rights Council, including the widely anticipated results of her inquiry into the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Turkey in October 2018.

Jamal Khashoggi was a Saudi journalist who had once been close to the Saudi royal family. However, he fled the kingdom in 2017, and became a US resident and a journalist at the Washington Post. He became a prominent critic of the Saudi government.

On 28 September 2018 he entered the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul seeking papers confirming a previous divorce, to facilitate his planned marriage to his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. He was told to return on 2 October to pick up the document. He did so, but he never left. Cengiz waited in vain for his return outside the embassy for hours.

The 99 page report makes for horrible reading. Khashoggi was brazenly murdered and dismembered inside the embassy in accordance with a pre-meditated plan to permanently silence a critic of the Saudi regime. The whereabouts of his remains are unknown.

The Saudi government initially insisted that Khashoggi had left the embassy, and it seems that a “body double” did so. Eventually, Saudi Arabia explained that the incident occurred at the behest of rogue agents, who are now being subjected to a trial in the kingdom. The charges are not known, nor are the proceedings public. Observers are bound not to report on them, including representatives of Turkey and the Permanent 5 of the UN Security Council. Five of the eleven accused are facing the death penalty.

There is no sign that the trial will look into the chain of command. Callamard’s report states that the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, is credibly implicated. Indeed, at present, men may be put to death by a court fulfilling Bin Salman’s will for following Bin Salman’s orders.

Ultimately, Callamard finds that Saudi Arabia is responsible for the extrajudicial killing of Khashoggi in breach of international human rights law. It has also breached international laws regarding the use of force in other States, as well as on consular relations. She called for accountability and transparency within Saudi Arabia, and failing that, the imposition of such by the international community.

Attacks on Journalists

Callamard also called for broader measures to deal with the rising phenomenon of violence against journalists.

Journalism is under considerable pressure as its economic base is eroded by the internet. Media credibility has been undermined by the antics of US President Donald Trump, which have encouraged leaders worldwide to dismiss critical stories as “fake news”. Trump has gone further, by claiming that news organisations are “the enemy of the people”. In June, media outlets were raided by the Australian Federal Police in June in a hunt for the identity of their sources on important stories. And Julian Assange now faces extradition over the publication of classified material, an unprecedented charge in the United States that threatens journalistic practices everywhere.

Hence, States are cracking down on the ability of journalists to publish stories that are in the public interest, and muddying the waters after publication by dismissing the imposition of genuine transparency and accountability as “fake”.

The butchering of a journalist in an embassy is of course a step up in gravity. But Khashoggi’s murder is only one of the most high profile of a string of killings of reporters (another example is that of Daphne Galicia in Malta). Reporters without Borders states that 2018 was the worst year for violence against and killings of journalists. Nearly 1000 journalists and media workers have been killed in the last decade. And the vast majority of journalist murders go unpunished.

Callamard ends her Khashoggi investigation report with a call for the development of special mechanisms within the UN to respond rapidly to and investigate the suspicious deaths of journalist and human rights defenders. She cogently argues that such a mechanism is needed in light of the common failure of States to respond properly to such deaths. While the response of the Council to this idea was muted, it is now on the table. If taken up by some States and civil society, the Council or the wider UN might be pressured eventually to adopt it.

Tellingly, the most antagonistic response to the proposal came from Russia, which has its own terrible record of journalist killings. Russia ridiculed the idea and wondered why journalist and human rights defenders deserved a special mechanism compared to others who might be subjected to extrajudicial killings. One reason is the extraordinary level of impunity which seems to attach to the killings of those who speak truth to power.

The reaction of the Human Rights Council

So how did the Council react, overall to Callamard’s report? As is always the case with this intergovernmental body, the responses were largely driven by politics rather than principle.

The Western Europe and Other Group (“WEOG”) as well as the European Union supported the Special Rapporteur, while the other UN regional groups (Africa, Asia, Latin America and Caribbean, Eastern Europe) were essentially neutral apart from those Eastern European States within the EU.

Mandate reports before the Human Rights Council are presented in pairs, with Callamard coupled with the Special Rapporteur on Education. Most developing States addressed their oral comments to the latter, thus avoiding discussion of Saudi Arabia and Khashoggi.

Saudi Arabia itself predictably rejected the report and attacked Callamard. The Arab states supported Saudi Arabia, though that support was much stronger from the peninsula States compared to those in North Africa (apart from Qatar). Saudi supporters tended to uphold the integrity of the Saudi response, and rebuke Callamard for a biased report based on unreliable sources. As is exasperatingly common in the Council, some States called into question her compliance with the Code of Conduct for Special Procedures.

There were a few outliers in the overall pattern of bloc responses. Russia, Cuba, Colombia and the Phillippines rebuked Callamard, while Turkey, Uruguay and Mexico were very supportive of the Special Rapporteur.

The most intriguing neutral was China. China engaged by asserting its own compliance with Callamard’s mandate, saying nothing regarding Khashoggi. However, it is notable that it did not try to defend Saudi Arabia, despite its long-standing aversion to open attacks on the human rights records of States.

The responses are disappointing to those seeking justice for Khashoggi. Even WEOG, while supporting the Special Rapporteur, generally failed to openly condemn Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the shameful equivocation within the Council was highlighted by a poignant intervention when civil society speakers finally took the floor. The speaker on behalf of DRCNet Foundation, an organisation which normally focuses on the “war on drugs”, was Hatice Cengiz, calling for an international investigation into the murder of her fiancée.

However, the Council response must be viewed in the context of the dampened expectations one must have for it as a political intergovernmental body where political clout overhangs all of its work. States are wary of the repercussions, diplomatic or worse, of challenging a State as politically and economically powerful as Saudi Arabia. One may recall how the Kingdom responded when the then Swedish Foreign Minister, Margot Wallstrom, criticised its human rights record in 2015. The same has arisen with regard to Canada (which probably issued the strongest Council statement in favour of Callamard).


For now, Saudi Arabia has got away with it. It seems that its markets, particularly those for arms, are too lucrative to jeopardise. President Trump has brazenly acknowledged that circumstance, and he may just be being more truthful than other leaders. After all, Saudi Arabia is due to host the next G20 summit, hardly an indicator of pariah status.

Callamard has a more optimistic take. She believes her report was well-received. And it may be that the numbers of neutral responses, including that of China, is encouraging. States may know that they have to do something, even though they are predictably hesitating in the face of Saudi power. She is now calling for States to use the scheduled Riyadh G20 summit in 2020 as a point to apply more pressure to the Kingdom.

And indeed, the Council may provide a sliver of hope for some justice for Khashoggi. It was only in March 2019 that Saudi Arabia was first subjected to a statement by States at the Council condemning its human rights record, despite the long-term appalling nature of that record, with 36 States signing on to a statement by Iceland. It seems likely that the Khashoggi incident catalysed the political will behind that ground-breaking statement. Along with the Callamard report, it may pave the way for a resolution against Saudi Arabia in future Council sessions, and for the regime to finally feel some pain for its grave human rights abuses.

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