Agnès Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, wrote the report linking Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.Denis Balibouse / Reuters

Last year was the worst on record for violence and abuse toward journalists. Dozens were killed, including Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist allegedly murdered by a Saudi hit squad at the country’s consulate in Istanbul. More than nine months later, Riyadh deflects responsibility for his death: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MbS, continues to represent the country without much consequence, though a UN report said there was “credible evidence” to link him and others to the killing.

At a gathering of reporters, activists, and foreign leaders at the Global Conference for Media Freedom, in London, the journalist’s death was on center stage. “When Jamal Khashoggi, Washington Post columnist, was tortured to death and dismembered by Saudi Arabian officials in Istanbul, world leaders responded with little more than a collective shrug,” Amal Clooney, the British Foreign Office’s special envoy on media freedom, told the conference’s 1,000 attendees. “Signing pledges and making speeches is not enough,” she added.

Among those in the audience was Agnès Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, and the director of the Global Freedom of Expression Project at Columbia University. Callamard was the author of the UN report that linked MbS to Khashoggi’s killing. In an interview with The Atlantic, she shared her thoughts on what justice for Khashoggi should look like, how governments can better protect journalists, and the role these conferences can play.

This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.


Yasmeen Serhan: You recently concluded your report to the United Nations, which held the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia responsible for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. What has the response been so far?

Agnès Callamard: On the part of civil society, the responses have been extremely positive and there is, to me, a sense of relief that something like this [a report into the killing] was done. There was a sense that this was overdue.

On the side of member states … I don’t think they were expecting the report to bear out the facts in such a naked fashion. I don’t necessarily believe I broke any ground with the facts or with the analysis … The Saudis rejected the report and have accused me of being biased for having relied on the media for my conclusion and so on—all of which is incorrect. I have been extremely careful with the information I’ve provided on the basis of what I could get at that time. I have no doubt that in two months, three months, [or] one year there will be more information—some of which may contradict what I have found, some of which may just add more colors, and so on.

For the Western governments, they now have to confront the fact that their response [to the killing] has been insufficient—something they, I think, knew. It’s going to be more difficult for them to ignore it. So that’s where I think we stand at the moment. Nothing radical, not strong determination. But words to the extent that yes, we need to do more. What is more? I don’t know yet.

Serhan: The report itself is quite detailed—it totals nearly 100 pages. What was the process of conducting your inquiry?  

Callamard: In terms of the research itself, it was a complex process. First of all, one party to the crisis refused me access to their information: Saudi Arabia. So I did rely a lot on Turkey, which has its own interests and, therefore, perspective. [Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was an ally of Khashoggi, and his government is believed to be the source of much of the information about the killing.]

A lot of information came in the form of intelligence, as opposed to evidence. That created big methodological challenges for how I triangulate and double check the information. From a methodological standpoint, it was a very complex mission. It had a ton of information, but no evidence; a lot of leaks, but no one willing to authenticate them.

And then of course, there is a legal dimension, which was also complex because it involved several countries, several bodies of international law, and so on.

Serhan: Saudi Arabia is one of the hundreds of countries that was invited to this global conference for media freedom here in London. Do you think it is for governments—even those that aren’t exactly known for championing media freedom—to be present today?

Callamard: Absolutely. It’s important to continue inviting them to these events to make them aware that there is a large community of people who fight for press freedom. It’s good for them to confront it; it’s good for them to realize how strong and determined that community is. It’s good for us to interact with them to understand where they are coming from. It’s good for us to ask for feedback and information on specific individual cases. It’s good for me to ask, if I see them, about Jamal Khashoggi and why it is that Saudi Arabia has failed so far to recognize its responsibilities as a state for the killing, and why they think it’s acceptable to imprison people on the basis of their peaceful expression of views.

So I think it’s important that they do interact, that they confront, that they realize that there are benchmarks around the world that they are far from meeting.  

Serhan: What would you say to those who argue that there is a sense of hypocrisy in countries attending who don’t adhere to those benchmarks, especially if they leave the conference without any intention of changing their ways?  

Callamard: Compare what happened in [last month’s] G20 with what will happen here. Clearly, MbS was using the G20 and his presence at the G20 to brand MbS and to brand Saudi Arabia as an equal to the G20 members, both in terms of their economic might and in terms of their values. He is pretending to be one of them, and the rest of the G20 community is pretending that he is one of them. That is a branding exercise that is extremely powerful, a marketing exercise which is repulsive and should be rejected for what it is.

Here, so far, I have seen nothing like this. I do not see an attempt to brand Saudi Arabia as a member of that community. So to me, it’s a very different dynamic. If at some point there is a photo op with a Saudi representative, the British, and others … that becomes problematic, and that is what we need to protest if this happens.

Serhan: You are speaking at a panel this afternoon about innovations to end journalist murders. What practical steps can governments take to ensure that what happened to Khashoggi doesn’t happen anywhere else?

Callamard: First, we need to take stock of the environment, and governments [and] civil society need to be aware that this environment may be changing. At the very least, we need to understand that governments now have far more latitude to engage and act [in ways that] less than five years ago were frowned upon and denounced very vigorously. And governments are therefore far more aggressive and systematic in their targeting of voices that are independent, critical, or dissenting. So that’s the bottom line.

What I have done in my report on Khashoggi is two things: I have asked that governments around the world … [that] have become places where people seek safety become fully aware of the fact that running abroad is no longer enough to escape harm and that therefore governments that welcome dissidents, journalists, and so on need to see them as a vulnerable group—a group [that is] vulnerable to targeted attacks by their state of origin or by non-state actors associated with their state of origin. That heightened vulnerability means better responses on the part of the state of asylum or the receiving state.

Intelligence agencies, police, all of those must be fully aware that there are those groups, those individuals on the territory that could be targeted. There are a range of mechanisms, from around-the-clock police protection for the very credible threats to a more casual checking on people. But a heightened awareness and greater outlook for any kind of threats and risk analysis. That’s one thing.

Second, I’ve suggested that the investigation and response to threats be made more sophisticated. I have suggested something I would like to do, which is a broad study of how governments around the world are responding to threats, are analyzing risk, step by step, what kind of best practice, how can other states do that.

There are also national action plans for the safety of journalists, which is an ongoing process run by UNESCO, which I think needs to continue and be fully implemented.

At the international level, what my inquiry has shown is that in fact there are a lot of gaps in terms of how the international community … responds to targeted killings. Unless they reach the level where they amount to a massive violation, they are unlikely to become the object of a specific inquiry.

I have suggested that going forward, the UN equip itself with a permanent instrument which will be mandated to conduct a criminal investigation into the targeted killings of dissidents, journalists, or human-rights defenders. That could be done through the secretary-general decisions or human-rights-council decisions, but we need that permanent mechanism that can have the mandate to investigate.

Serhan: Do you think that countries such as the United Kingdom and Canada, which are co-hosting today’s conference, have done enough to respond to the death of Khashoggi? Are they best placed to be hosting a conference on global media freedom if they haven’t?  

Callamard: I don’t think it’s an either/or. I think this event is well taken. It’s the first of its kind. Let’s see where it goes. It’s too premature for me to critique it, to be honest. We need to give them the chance to come up with a plan at the end, to come up with a strong statement, to explain how they want to move forward. And then we can determine whether it was worth the money or not.

If it can be an opportunity for member states to get reenergized around the protection of press freedom at a time when it is under attack by many different corners … I think it’s very important.

There is a bit of a lack of courage around the world right now on the part of leaders. Will they get more courageous if they are together and feel they are determined in the same way? I hope so. We need more courageous leaders that can stand up to the bullies.

Serhan: The trial of the 11 defendants charged with the murder of Khashoggi is currently under way in Saudi Arabia. You recently wrote that the trial, which is taking place behind closed doors, is unlikely to deliver “real justice” for Khashoggi. What does justice look like to you?

Callamard: First, it demands full truth-telling. I have done a bit of it in my report, but there is far more out there. And it’s not only in Saudi Arabia … Turkey must release all the remaining information that they have: recordings relevant to the killing, any kind of scientific evidence that they still hold, and so on. The U.S. must share its own intelligence on the killing of Mr. Khashoggi. So truth-telling from all sides is first what justice for Mr. Khashoggi looks like.

Second, those who are responsible must be held to account in a court of law. That includes people who perpetrated the crime and the person who ordered the crime, and it includes the people within the states who directly or indirectly allowed for the crime to be perpetrated. That means people at the highest level of the state that may have incited the crime, that may have known of the crime but failed to prevent it, that may have known of the crime but failed to respond to it. And that includes people who, once the crime occurred, gave their green light to a botched investigation, which is exactly what happened in the case of Jamal Khashoggi’s investigation. That person, too, should be held to account. That could be the crown prince. That could be someone else. All I’m saying is, the accountability for the crime is going to take many forms and many shapes, and at the moment, we are way away from that.

Justice also means political, financial, [and] symbolic responses. The crime took place in a consulate. It violated the Vienna Convention. Surely, the international community could somehow punish Saudi Arabia for its misuse of its consulate by doing something around the multitude of consular relations with Saudi Arabia.

Symbolically, I think there is a lot more than can be done. Creating special funds for the protection of press freedom in the Gulf in the name of Jamal Khashoggi. I suggested during the Davos meeting … that there is a session named after Jamal Khashoggi … There is symbolically a lot that can be done, which has not been done yet. That’s what justice will look like.

Serhan: Is there anything I didn’t ask you that I should have?

Callamard: What is important to keep in mind and to remember is the fact that, in my view, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and the absence of strong response to the killing and to the other violations by Saudi Arabia has created a democratic crisis and certainly, at a minimum, a democratic deficit within our own countries.

In the vast majority of Western countries, there is a demand for Saudi Arabia to be held accountable. People are angry and people are clamoring for justice … I think the public opinion in our countries is absolutely spot-on and committed to have justice for the women activists, for the journalists, for Jamal Khashoggi, and hopefully for the people of Yemen.

A court in the U.K. has said, We don’t want you to sell arms. The Senate in the U.S. said, We don’t want to sell arms to Saudi Arabia … What are the [governments] … doing in response to the public, in response to the court, in response to the Congress? Nothing.

Holding that partner to account for all of that is more likely to make it a more reliable partner, and if it doesn’t, well frankly it means that maybe we should look for partners elsewhere.

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