Newspaper columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing is the latest high-profile example of a sovereign meting out extreme justice and capital punishment. CIA analysts concluded that Khashoggi was brutally killed last October inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey.
And, shockingly, it was legal.
One reason the Saudis have not faced international retribution in the courts or official diplomatic blowback for the killing is simple: Death is a legal form of punishment in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Like it or not, the sentence was handed down, perhaps by Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself, and the cruel execution was conducted within the consulate and on what is arguably Saudi Arabia’s diplomatically sovereign territory.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan argues that the murder was committed on territory that is physically and geographically in Turkey, a NATO ally that gave up its own death penalty in a 2004 bid to join the European Union. But the reality is that Erdoğan will respect the conventional inviolability of a foreign embassy and consulate in a centuries-old tradition that gives safe passage and protection to diplomatic missions. To act otherwise would be to breach not only diplomatic protocol — it would also put at risk the protections of Turkey’s own diplomatic missions overseas.
Instead of seeking to overturn a generally accepted and mostly desirable practice afforded to foreign missions, there is really only one way to make future Khashoggi-type killings infrequent and universally unacceptable: Outlaw capital punishment.
Make it illegal now. Here, there and everywhere.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom is now in the national spotlight for using his powers to call for a death penalty moratorium. (Disclosure: My wife is California’s lieutenant governor and opposes capital punishment.)
In 2016, a little over half of California voters decided to keep capital punishment. That referendum focused on the enormous moral, judicial and penal costs of capital punishment. Newsom sees his recent election as a popular affirmation of his strong and highly personal opposition to the death penalty.
I have long argued against capital punishment on national-security grounds. Some of the most heinous criminals residing overseas never get extradited to the United States for punishment unless America is willing to cut a deal and spare these extreme criminals from the ultimate punishment. And it’s not just murderous terrorists who escape extradition. Edward Snowden remains out of reach, and it may keep Julian Assange off U.S. soil.
Most recently, it was El Chapo who got immunity from the death penalty. In contrast, 737 individuals on California’s death row received no such deal by dint of getting caught for their horrific crimes within United States. This two-tier system of justice is bad enough. For criminals, the lesson is simple: If you plan on hurting Americans, do it overseas.
It’s not just geography that defines legal differences. It’s the crimes themselves. What’s legal in one place is punishable by death in another. Florida’s rules are not the same as Saudi Arabia’s. In some countries, political dissent or being gay is punishable by death.
As a result, differences in legal norms and reasonable punishment cause diplomatic tension. It puts stress on relations between allies and strategically friendly nations. In America, it created absurd conditions for President Trump, who had to contort American policy and stretch to justify the inhumanity of Khashoggi’s death.
Only one approach can harmonize global legal policies, stop cavalier killing and make the consequences of such actions palpable and universally accepted. Outlaw the death penalty. Everywhere. Not just in California and around the United States, but in capitals around the world.
The good news is that the medieval practice is commonplace in only a few nations outside the United States: Iran, China, Pakistan, India, North Korea, Saudi Arabia for example. Clearly, this is not the best company for the United States to keep.
Abolishing the death penalty globally would allow countries to join together in a common cause that does not threaten their sovereignty, but, rather, reinforces their global responsibility, shared humanity and respectable membership in a civilized community of nations.
It won’t even require a massive legal movement or shift in policy. All these nations have already signed onto the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which rejects capital punishment.
From a policy perspective, Trump has already recognized the unfairness of an unbalanced American justice system. That’s why he has commuted sentences and signed an important criminal justice bill. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, in his current role, can also apply sovereign mercy on a case-by-case basis today.
An accepted and internationally recognized reversal of the world’s death penalties would be a sane and civil approach for nations and leaders who no longer want to get caught up either in the direct appeals for clemency or the multilateral diplomatic challenges of trying to explain — or explain away — their out-of-step stance.
It’s time to kill the death penalty.
Markos Kounalakis reported in several countries with capricious laws and corporal punishments. He is now safely working as visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.