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The Khashoggi Murder is a Matter of State Sovereignty
Oct 29, 2018

The Khashoggi Murder is a Matter of State Sovereignty

Amer Kurtović, a Master student at the Department, posits that although the Khashoggi murder is a terrible incident in of itself, it should be cast in a light of a wider dispute over the question of state sovereignty and argues that such violations of basic human rights and international law must not be allowed to happen again, through concentrated action of the international society of states.

Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist working for the Washington Post, disappeared in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2nd, 2018. By now it is a bygone conclusion that official Riyadh is responsible for the murder and mutilation of the journalist.

Condemnations have been widespread, with countries as diverse policies as Turkey and the United States relatively united in condemning the murder; however, one important country – China – hasn’t condemned (yet) the murder but only “noted relevant reports” and labeled the murder “a tragic incident” that “aroused widespread concern from the international community” only after the Saudi government admitted that Khashoggi indeed was murdered in the consulate.

This isn’t surprising for China; it’s just an example of a long-standing policy often called the non-interference principle. According to this, China does not interfere or comment on other countries’ internal affairs and expects other countries to reciprocate by not interfering in or commenting on China’s internal affairs. This principle is a modern incarnation of the idea of the supremacy of state sovereignty, where states retain absolute control over anything and everything that happens within their internationally recognized borders. In order words, it is fine if Saudi Arabia wants to kill its own citizen on its own territory (which the consulate, technically, is).

Western countries, such as the United States, adhere to a more limited version of the principle of state sovereignty: countries are free to conduct their internal affairs as they see fit, provided they adhere to certain minimum criteria with respect to human rights. This line of thinking was formulated at the2015 UN World Summit and is called the responsibility to protect (from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity).

The Chinese approach is state-centric (dating to the 1648 Treaties of Westphalia) while the R2P approach is human-centric. These two differing interpertations of the extent of state sovereignty may at first seem philosophical arguments with few real-word applications, but the Khashoggi murder exemplifies the real-world impact of the outcome of the debate. If the former argument were to trump, people would have no protection from their own governments decided to murder them; however, if the latter argument were to triumph and become (more) universal, no government could violate anyone's human rights.

So, although the Khashoggi murder is a terrible incident in of itself, it should be cast in a light of a wider dispute over the question of state sovereignty: namely, do other states have a legitimate right to question, investigate, and even sanction other states for what they consider violations of human rights against their own citizens.

The pendulum has been swinging toward the ‘yes’ camp in recent years, but China has pulled it back toward the ‘no’ camp although it remains firmly in the former camp. The fact that it is currently in the ‘yes’ camp doesn’t mean it will stay there or that the Khashoggi murder, if left unpunished, won’t drastically pull it in the opposite direction. In fact, if Saudi Arabia doesn’t face any serious consequences after an impartial investigation concludes who is responsible (which is a condition in of itself), then it is likely that the pendulum will move closer to the ‘no’ camp.

Such an outcome would be a major setback for the rule of international law and a major blow to the idea of an international society of states, governed by rules that they themselves have enacted and committed to following. All law-abiding people and countries should in their own capacities press, publicly and loudly, for an international and multilateral investigation to determine what exactly happened, how it happened, and who ordered it and, after the findings are released, ensure such violations of basic human rights and international law do not happen again through binding convenants and automatic, independent monitoring mechanisms; otherwise we are all collectively making the system of international anarchy more anarchic and allowing "the strong to do what they can" while forcing "the weak to accept what they have to accept".


About Amer Kurtović: Amer Kurtović hold a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and European Studies from International Burch University and is currently working toward a Master’s degree in EU integration. His primary research interests include the European Union, the Western Balkans, and discourse theory and analysis while his secondary research interests include the Middle East and political Islam.