Khashoggi murder and trust between the state and citizens

When—if ever—and how should states actively intervene when faced with questions of major human rights violations by other states, such as mass murder and genocide. Are there clearly-defined guidelines?

One argument, attributed to political scientist Michael Walzer, posits that states should intervene if the violation is shocking to the human conscience. Of course, it is frequently difficult to determine which abuses are shocking to the human conscience, but such a statement does at least point to the existence of a “red line”.

The murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 has such a shocking dimension. It not only shocks the human conscience, but also shakes the very foundation of the social contract between the state and the individual.

Turkish media coverage of the murder has thus far largely neglected this aspect of the case. Instead, the crime is being depicted as just another murder, another example of state corruption.

One example is the piece by Turkish sociologist and writer Oya Baydar featured on independent news website T24. Baydar compares Khashoggi’s murder with Turkey’s year-long detention of human rights activist and businessman Osman Kavala and claims that any real difference is quantitative, not qualitative.

This would be missing the point. Khashoggi’s murder is qualitatively different not just from Kavala’s detention, but from many other crimes committed by the state, and the difference involves the aforementioned concept of “shock”.

Kavala's detention without an indictment for more than a year is a violation of his rights. Of course, the concept of “violation” can only be defined after arriving at a definition of what is normal and acceptable. In other words, we need a prefatory assumption to object to Kavala's detention.

And that assumption is the existence of a legal system that operates according to an agreed-upon set of rules. If the state is to detain someone, it must do so according to such standards.

The problem with Kavala's arrest and detention is that the government violated these fundamental principles. In Kavala's case, the opposition is calling on the government to obey the same rules that are supposed to bind us all.

This is very different from the Khashoggi case. More precisely, Khashoggi’s murder represents the obliteration of one of the fundamental central principles of the social contract: the state has not simply violated the social contract here, it has attempted to eliminate it.

Of course, it is difficult to build a case on a single example. If the Saudis had not been so inept at covering up their murder of Khashoggi, the case might well have been fobbed off as just another unexplained disappearance and murder. But by committing to this murder in its consulate, the Saudi state is showing its willingness to undermine or even completely disregard the norm.

Which brings us to another concept: Trust.

Objecting to Kavala's detention presupposes the existence of a “trust relationship”. We cannot object to the illegality of this action without believing that such relationship has been established. In this case, it is the social-political trust established between the individual and the state, whereby the state is presupposed to act on the behalf of its citizens.

Ever since ancient Greece the issue of trust between the individual and the state has been the starting point for discussions on political theory. But until the Enlightenment, this trust relationship was established by governing individuals or religions, only later being transferred to institutions. Yet, in every period, the trust relationship has been essential for the state to maintain its existence.

We can think of this trust as something that doesn’t need to be constantly reiterated or openly reaffirmed, something that goes without saying. You go to a restaurant to eat, go to a bank to get some money, to a government office to get some paperwork done. If you do not receive the expected service, if there are mistakes or inaccuracies you object since you have the “right” to expect a level of “compliance” in this relationship.   

In order to organise our daily experiences and to live as a community, we create common, accepted norms about how individuals and institutions should behave. These are based on this trust and help us foresee how other actors will behave. In the absence of norms or of the confidence that they will be followed, there can be no community. This forms the basis of the structure that we call the state.

I believe that Khashoggi’s murder has profoundly shaken this social edifice of trust. In that sense, it is radically different from other seemingly similar cases. A state cannot murder its own citizens at its consulates. Citizens who go to a state agency for bureaucratic reasons cannot be killed by agents of their own states.

Even when they commit a murder, however, states do not automatically transgress the trust relationship with their citizens. They are aware of the existence of the rules and adhere to them. And when they do not, they hide, they obscure and they deny. 

Even in the case mass crimes, governments will usually try to stay within the boundaries of the trust relationship with their citizens. They announce their intentions towards the groups in advance by declaring them enemies. That is, they made known beforehand which groups they will target and why they are enemies.

Before attacking a group, states declare them to be societal pathogens—hidden enemies, agents of sedition, and often inhuman etc. Reasons are provided that the target groups should be excluded from the state-citizen trust relationship.

Before the Nazis destroyed the Jews, they revoked their citizenship. The eastern European Jews who were not citizens were thus “enemies”. A similar practice was implemented during the Armenian genocide. The citizenship of Armenians was revoked, the Ottoman government announced they were no longer under the protection of the state and they were declared to be a threat to the existence of the country and its citizens.

In other words, even in the case of such grisly crimes, states are mindful to preserve the trust relationship. The Nazis preserved their trust relationship with the German race; the Ottoman-Turkish rulers protected their trust relationship with their Muslim population. This relationship, preserved even when governments were committing genocide, was violated with the Khashoggi murder, and, as a result, it opens up the door to question the legitimacy of the state's existence.

In Kavala's case, our objection is based on the trust relationship we assume to exist between the citizens of this country and the state. In other words, our criticism is not of the contract itself, but of the state's refusal to fulfil its obligations under this contract.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.