The Disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi and International Law

By Summer Moukalled

written on November 11, 2018

In October of 2018, Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi arrived at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey and never left.[1] Soon after, his fiancée went public about his disappearance.[2] The Saudi Arabian government said that Khashoggi had left the consulate after arriving and that they had “nothing to hide.”[3] The Saudi government continued to deny the allegations for nearly three weeks, describing allegations that Khashoggi was killed as “baseless.”[4]


Jamal Khashoggi was a prominent Saudi journalist, covering major stories like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the rise of Obama Bin Laden.[5] For years he was close to the Saudi royal family and served as an advisor to the government, but he soon lost favor and went into exile in the U.S.[6] He began writing for the Washington Post, where he criticized the policies of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman.[7] Three days before his disappearance, he told BBC’s Newshour program that the people being arrested in a crackdown on dissent overseen by Prince Salman “are not even being dissidents, they just have an independent mind.”[8]


In the 20th of October, 2018, it was reported that the journalist had actually died in the consulate after a fight.[9] State television finally reported that Khashoggi was murdered “in a ‘rogue operation’ and vowed to punish ‘those responsible”.[10] Soon it was reported that Khashoggi died after resisting attempts to return him to Saudi Arabia, and his body was given to a local ‘co-operator’ to be disposed of.[11]


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says that there was evidence that the killing was planned in advance, and 15 Saudi nationals arrived in Istanbul before the murder, removed security cameras from the consulate building, and reported that he was immediately strangled and his body dismembered.[12]


It has been reported that Turkey has been cautious over pressuring Saudi Arabia to investigate the issue since it has seen that the U.S. will not punish the Saudis over this.[13] Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says that it would take some more weeks “before the US has enough evidence to impose sanctions in response to the killing.”[14] Despite international pressure, including Germany announcing that it will stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia, many have noted that the murder will not damage Saudi Arabia’s trade and defense ties in the long run.[15]

Saudi Arabia has been known to have one of the most censored media environments in the world.[16] In 2017, several human rights defenders were jailed for their social media posts.[17] Access to the internet is limited, with websites judged to contain “harmful,” “illegal,” “anti-Islamic,” or “offensive” material are routinely blocked.[18] Websites and social media pages belonging to political organizations and human rights are often blocked.[19] Criticism of the Saudi royal family is often not tolerated as well, as websites like Al-Araby Al-Jadeed­ and The New Arab have been blocked.[20]


While Saudi Arabia’s low tolerance for dissenters and limits on free expression is not anything new, Saudi has violated two rules of international law with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, “the ban on extraterritorial enforcement of state’s laws or policies, and the requirements for lawful uses of diplomatic missions.”[21] The first rule prohibits states from sending agents to the territory of another to execute its own laws or policies.[22] While states have jurisdiction to prescribe laws governing certain conduct beyond their borders, enforcement of a state’s laws on another states territory without the authority of the other state is unlawful.[23] The Saudi government was clearly in violation of this rule when they killed Khashoggi, a dissident, on Turkish soil.[24] The second rule, that “diplomatic and consular missions must be used for specific official purposes, in exchange for which states hosting embassies and consulates but grant the buildings and staff diplomatic or consular immunity.” [25] Under the 1962 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, a consulates function is “protecting in the receiving State the interests of the sending State and of its nationals, both individuals and bodies corporate, within the limits permitted by international law.”[26] Further, the Vienna Convention requires that consular officials must “respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State.”[27] Murdering your citizens in a receiving state violates both of these rules.[28]


Khashoggi’s murder has created international attention because it involves a number of human rights violations in addition to an attack on free expression and journalism.[29] Khashoggi’s murder should spur a response by countries like the United States. While the U.S. has yet to impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia, actions need to be taken in order to ensure that further attacks on human rights and attacks on free expression do not continue.

[1] Richard Hall, Jamal Khashoggi: What we know and what we don’t know about the journalist’s death, Independent (Oct. 24, 2018),

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] John Haitiwanger, How the Saudi government’s story on slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi has shifted over time,

[5] Jamal Khashoggi: All you need to know about Saudi journalist’s death, BBC News,

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Mersiha Gadzo & Yarno Ritzen, One month after the Khashoggi killing, probe makes little progress, Aljazeera (02 Nov. 2018 11:39 GMT),

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Freedom on the Net 2017, Freedom House (last visited Nov. 4, 2018).

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Steven Ratner, The Khashoggi Murder: How Mohammed Bin Salman Underestimated International Law, LAWFARE (Oct. 22, 2018, 2:02 PM),

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, art. 5 (a), Apr. 24, 1963, 596 U.N.T.S. 261 (entered into force Mar. 19, 1967) [hereinafter Vienna Convention].

[27] Id. at art. 55 (1).

[28] Steven Ratner, The Khashoggi Murder: How Mohammed Bin Salman Underestimated International Law, LAWFARE (Oct. 22, 2018, 2:02 PM),

[29] Id.