Exactly a year after Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi-born, American-based journalist, was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnès Callamard, remains categorical: UN Secretary-General António Guterres can and should do more about the murder, and so should member states.
“I am asking the secretary-general of the United Nations, the various heads of states, including in Europe, Canada and Australia, to speak publicly about the situation and to do so in places and circumstances where it is difficult to do it,” Callamard told PassBlue. “The demand I am making should not carry a heavy political cost if it is done in a more collective fashion.”
In her June report investigating the murder of Khashoggi — the only official UN word on the matter — Callamard called on Guterres and UN member countries to launch an international criminal investigation and asked heads of state to rally against Saudi Arabia’s blatant attack on freedom of the press.
Although Callamard’s role as a UN special rapporteur does not allow her to make a formal criminal accusation, in her report she found that the Saudi Arabian state was responsible for the “premeditated execution” of Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist who lived in the United States. The report asks Guterres, who is positioned to appoint someone with the power to carry out a criminal investigation, to do so. (As special rapporteur, Callamard is appointed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.)
Saudi Arabia has argued that the murder was orchestrated by Saudi officials in Istanbul and their superiors in Riyadh, the capital. Eleven suspects have been charged, five of whom face the death penalty. Investigations by Turkish officials and The New York Times found connections among agents involved in the killing and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has detached himself from the assassination. Yet Prince Mohammed told CBS news on Sept. 28 that Khashoggi’s murder happened “under his watch.”
This admission did not impress Callamard, who noted that “it does not acknowledge personal liability.”
Callamard also explored other options to hold the perpetrators accountable in Turkey and in the US, saying in the report, “The killing of Mr Khashoggi thus constitutes an international crime over which other states should claim universal jurisdiction.”
The Secretary-General’s Stance on a Criminal Investigation
“The secretary-general is insisting that he does not have the authority to [give a mandate] on his own,” Callamard said, and that he “needed a Security Council resolution,” a stance that the UN spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, made clear after Callamard released her report in June.
“The secretary-general does not have the power or authority to launch criminal investigations without the mandate of a competent intergovernmental body,” Dujarric said at the time. “Power and authority to do that lie with member states.”
For a year now, Guterres and UN member states have been throwing the ball back and forth, lobbing responsibility for the complicated case into each other’s court. Still, Callamard told PassBlue, “I don’t believe that he needs a Security Council resolution.”
Callamard supports the notion of a Security Council resolution — which could be legally binding — to call on countries around the world to unite behind a push to resolve the murder. But that’s easier said than done. Saudi Arabia, an influential, oil-rich country in the troubled Middle East, has a record of human-rights abuses, but it is often left alone by the UN Human Rights Council (of which it is currently a member) and other nations, including democratic ones in the West.
On Oct. 1, The Guardian reported that Amal Clooney, Britain’s special envoy on media freedom, believes that a legal panel, appointed by the British government, would call for a new mechanism at the UN to investigate such killings.
It is unclear if other permanent members of the Security Council besides Britain — China, France, Russia and the US, some of them close allies and big suppliers of weapons to Saudi Arabia — are willing to stick their necks out to defend press freedom and pursue the gruesome murder of a 59-year-old journalist who worked for one of America’s most prestigious newspapers.
Pressing for Justice
Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancée, has traveled the world to ask countries to help resolve the murder. She was warmly greeted in many of them, she said at a conference at Columbia University, in New York, on Sept. 27, speaking through an interpreter. But not only did they resist her request for action, “they never said anything negative against Saudi Arabia.” Even members of the European Union, known to be outspoken about human-rights violations, have shown no formal or informal support to act.
Callamard, who is French and directs the Global Freedom of Expression project at Columbia University, said that she, too, traveled to many European countries during her investigation, and while they cooperated with her, none offered to help. She said she hoped that European and other Western countries, including the US and Canada, would unite to denounce Saudi Arabia’s crime in a more concerted way. (The US did denounce the murder but left it to the Saudi government to handle the case.)
She worries that letting the case go will set a precedent, sending the message that persecuting journalists is something any country is free to do with impunity.
Cengiz said the biggest show of support she got in her investigation came from some members of the US Congress, representatives and senators who told her, “The United States is not only about the president.”
Cengiz, who is from Turkey, said her country “did its best investigating as much as international law allowed.”
And Callamard said she was “initially very impressed with the position by Canada, who has remained over the last two years committed to seeing an improvement in the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia.”
Canada is the home of the family of Raif Badawi, a Saudi dissident who is imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. His family has raised awareness of his plight in Canada, making it difficult for politicians there to deal politically and economically with Saudi Arabia.
Last year, a diplomatic dispute exploded when Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, criticized Riyadh after Saudi Arabia arrested Badawi’s sister, Samar.
“Canada is still paying the price for it,” Callamard said. In response to the criticism, Saudi Arabia suspended all trade relationships and investments in Canada and expelled the Canadian ambassador.
“Canada was left alone in fighting that fight, and that to me has given Saudi Arabia the feeling that they could act and retaliate and respond in ways which will not be hampered by anyone,” Callamard said.
In response to a query this week, Guterres’s office said that it has not changed its position on the Khashoggi case since its last statement, in June.
Thiago Alves Ferreira contributed reporting to this article.
This article has been updated.
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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.