Revisit diplomatic immunity

After much dissembling for weeks, the Saudi Arabian government is finally admitting to the facts relating to the horrific murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist resident in the United States. Khashoggi had an appointment with officials in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Cameras outside the consulate captured him entering the building but not coming out. Although it was obvious that something had happened to him inside the consulate, the Saudis insisted that he was not in the building. With evidence of Saudi official involvement in Khashoggi’s ‘disappearance’ mounting and the incident snowballing rapidly into a crisis with international implications, the Saudis finally admitted to Khashoggi being dead, to the fact that he was murdered and that the murder was pre-meditated. Horrific details of how Khashoggi was tortured, killed and then cut into pieces before being disposed of have emerged. Understandably, these have triggered international outrage. Particularly alarming is the role of the Saudi State in the murder. Fifteen Saudi officials flew into Istanbul and were at the consulate when Khashoggi was there. They, together with three, consular officials beat Khashoggi to death or witnessed it. It is widely believed that the order to eliminate Khashoggi was issued from the top, that is, the kingdom’s all-powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Read more: Khashoggi was strangled and dismembered, Turkey says

Khashoggi’s killing has raised questions over whether the Saudis claim diplomatic immunity for the 18 officials? The Vienna Conventions confer diplomatic immunity on ambassadors and other high-ranking diplomats. Saudi Arabia has not claimed immunity for its officials yet and indeed it cannot as consular officials do not enjoy absolute immunity under the Vienna Conventions. Turkey is insisting on their trial on its soil. This will be difficult as all the suspects are in Saudi Arabia. Riyadh will need to extradite them to Turkey, which it is unlikely to do. It has promised to put the suspects on trial in Saudi Arabia. Few expect a Saudi probe to get to the bottom of the truth.

This is not the first time that Saudi diplomatic or consular officials have been involved in violent crime in a host country. In 2015, a Saudi diplomat posted in Delhi was found to have raped two Nepali women over several months and ill-treated a third at his residence in Gurgaon. The Saudi government claimed diplomatic immunity for him and quickly flew him out of the country. Whether diplomats should be given immunity for violent crimes was a subject of heated debate. This brazen flouting of international norms by the Saudis to protect its diplomats and other officials indulging in grave crimes is disgusting and alarming. It must stop now. The Vienna Conventions must be amended to clarify that grave crimes by diplomats will be punished in the host country.

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