Lessons from ‘The Sacrificial Lamb’

The United Nations report on the murder of journalist Jamal Khasshogi has been released – which claims that Saudi Arabia is responsible under international law for the “deliberate, premeditated execution" of the journalist. Are the global regulatory bodies following the case to form a legal precedent to counter extrajudicial killing? Could sanctions solve the issue?


On 2nd October 2018, Jamal Ahmad Khashoogi, a Saudi Arabian dissident, author and columnist for The Washington Post, entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to obtain documents related to his planned marriage. There was no CCTV footage recorded of him exiting the consulate, and his failure to exit the building led him to be declared a missing person. Simultaneously news reports began to emerge claiming that he had been dismembered inside the Cnsulate. An inspection of the Consulate, by Saudi Arabian and Turkish officials, took place on 15 October. Turkish officials found evidence of "tampering" during the inspection and evidence that supported the belief that Khashoggi had been killed. Initially, the Saudi Arabian government denied the death and claimed that Khashoggi had left the consulate alive; but 18 days later said that he had died inside due to a fist fight. This statement was contradicted when Saudi Arabia's attorney general stated that the murder was premeditated. Eighteen Saudis were arrested, including the team of fifteen who had been sent to "confront him".

On 16 November, The Washington Post and other news media reported that the CIA had concluded that Mohammed bin Salman had ordered Khashoggi's assassination. United Nations extrajudicial executions investigator, Agnes Callamard, launched her inquiry on the case in January under her mandate from the UN-backed Human Rights Council.


The UN report into October’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul is, so far, the fullest account of the events that transpired. Agnes Callamard the special rapporteur, described it as a “deliberate, premeditated execution”. The report cited evidence of a 15-person "planned and elaborate" mission to execute Khashoggi, requiring "significant government coordination, resources and finances".

The 98-page report laid out detailed evidence, stating that thirteen minutes before Mr. Khasshogi entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2, Saudi officials inside the building discussed dismembering a body. At the end of the conversation, Maher Abdulaziz al-Mutreb, a senior Saudi intelligence officer and the bodyguard of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, asked whether the "sacrificial animal" had arrived. Al-Mutreb asked Salah Mohammed Tubaigy, a well-known Saudi forensics doctor, how they would carry out the body. "Joints will be separated. It is not a problem," the doctor replied. "The body is heavy. The first time, I cut on the ground. If we take plastic bags and cut it into pieces, it will be finished. We will wrap each of them”.

More than eight months after the murder, Khashoggi's remains have not been found. The special rapporteur's report found "credible evidence" that Saudi Arabia had destroyed proof by "thoroughly, even forensically" cleaning the crime scene. Turkish investigators found limited reaction to Luminol (used to detect trace amounts of blood at crime scenes) and other tests, even though the dismemberment of Khashoggi's body had reportedly taken place in the premises.

Saudi Arabia was under an international obligation to cooperate with Turkey, yet according to evidence the rapporteur found that "the Saudi investigation was not conducted in good faith, and that it may amount to obstructing justice." "Saudi Arabia clearly intended to create difficulties for the Turkish investigation. Along with evidence of professional, thorough, if not forensic cleaning of the crime scenes, they prevented an effective and thorough Turkish investigation and amount to obstruction," the report said.

According to witnesses, the Consul General ordered non-Saudi staff to not report to work on the day of the killing or to leave at noon. Other witnesses said that they were told to remain in their offices and not leave the consulate because of special visitors.

The report does not offer a definitive conclusion about bin Salman’s role, but Callamard highlighted the Crown Prince’s campaign against political opponents and dissidents. She has called for sanctions on the Saudi crown prince. The report will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council on June 26, whose 47 members include Saudi Arabia. 


Our assessment is that there are many accounts of premeditated, unlawful and intentional killing by state actors. These deaths fall under the category of being either lawful or unlawful, based on a set of domestic laws and international laws to which the government has agreed by treaty. Certain norms are de facto enforced as obligatory on all countries - such as the prohibition of genocide, piracy and slavery.

According to our observation, extra territorial killing by governmental authorities or individuals are mostly perceived to be unethical, since they bypass the due process of the legal jurisdiction of the place in which the crime occurs. We feel that Khassogi’s killing constitutes the violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and the prohibition against ‘extra territorial use of force in times of peace.’  This is also an act inconsistent both with customary law (UN Charter) and also with a core tenet of the UN - the freedom of expression. The killing of Mr. Khashoggi is a violation of the jus cogen norm - a fundamental principle of international law that is largely accepted by the global community as a norm from which no derogation is permitted. This includes prohibition of genocide, maritime piracy, slavery, torture and wars of aggression. 

On another note, we feel that this case has helped to garner new insights  on how the international community addresses serious infractions of international human rights law. The killing is closely associated with the development and application of 'Magnitsky legislation’- new laws in a number of Western States that, in principle, allow one State to apply targeted sanctions against individuals accused of serious human rights violations and/or corruption in another State. 

We feel that key recommendations of the report, calling all UN members to sanction the individuals, including the Crown Prince, is an extraordinary recommendation for an international report. We feel that economic sanctions do tend to facilitate regime change in targeted countries. It is equally likely that sanctions will cause the regime’s supporters to rally in defiance of foreign interference, thereby strengthening the ruling elite and reinforcing objectionable policies.


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