Lessons from a tragedy

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Skyfall A woman and child walk past the MH17 crash site near the village of Hrabove. Photos: AP
Skyfall A woman and child walk past the MH17 crash site near the village of Hrabove. Photo: AP

On 21 July, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted an Australian-sponsored resolution that condemned “in the strongest terms” the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 on 17 July near Donetsk, Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers and crew. Resolution 2166 called for “a full, thorough and independent international investigation” into the incident in accordance with international civil aviation guidelines; demanded that the armed groups in control of the crash site and the surrounding area “refrain from any actions that may compromise the integrity of the crash site” and “provide safe, secure, full and unrestricted access to the site”, including the immediate cessation of all military activities by all sides to allow for security and safety of the international investigation; and insisted on the “dignified, respectful and professional” treatment and recovery of the bodies of the victims. Finally, the resolution demanded that those responsible for the incident be held to account and all countries cooperate fully with efforts to establish accountability.

Australia took the lead in the tough resolution because 28 Australian citizens and nine residents were among the dead. A resolution sponsored by the US would have risked being ensnared in the Russia-West geopolitical tension over the ongoing Ukrainian conflict. The strongly-worded resolution was adopted so swiftly because the world was united in grief and outrage at the tragedy, one with which millions of ordinary air travellers can readily identify. We have a right to expect that a commercial flight in an approved air corridor will not be shot down. Yet this is not the first such incident, and therefore, the response needs to move beyond one resolution on one incident to a set of protocols and agreements that govern any future repeats of such tragedies.

On 1 September 1983, the then-Soviet Union shot down Korean Air flight 007 near Sakhalin, killing 269 people, mistaking it for a US military spy plane that had ignored warning signals to enter militarily-sensitive Soviet airspace. US president Ronald Reagan called it “a massacre”. When the American warship USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air flight 655, flying within its approved flight path, with a surface-to-air missile (SAM) on 3 July 1988, killing 290 people, Tehran called it “a barbaric massacre”. On 4 October 2001, Ukraine’s military shot down a Russian passenger jet en route from Israel to Russia over the Black Sea, killing 78 people.

There were no independent international investigations. Those responsible are not known to have been held criminally accountable. In the case of the Iran Air flight, the US did admit culpability and paid $62 million (an average of $213,000 per passenger) in reparations, but the Vincennes commander was not reprimanded or discharged. Some civilian planes were also brought down with US-supplied missiles by the mujahideen fighting the Soviet occupation troops in the 1980s.

It is not acceptable to respond to the tragedies through the lens of allies, friends, adversaries and enemies. We need shared new understandings on how to deal with all such incidents in the future through impartial, credible and prompt international investigations. Hopefully, the probe into the MH17 tragedy will set a helpful precedent at all levels.

It is also worth emphasising that all the incidents listed above were genuine accidents. In not a single case was there any plausible evidence to suggest it was a deliberate act of knowingly bringing down a civilian airliner. Emotional venting aside, it is therefore wrong and unhelpful to call them acts of terrorism or even murder (which has to have intent). It is still a crime, manslaughter, and those responsible must be held to criminal account. The distinction is readily grasped in considering Pan Am Flight 103 that was brought down by a terrorist bomb over Lockerbie on 21 December 1988, for which two Libyan agents were convicted.

Theatre of war Emergency workers evacuate bodies in the rebel-held area
Theatre of war Emergency workers evacuate bodies in the rebel-held area. Photo: AP

Because it is an act of criminal manslaughter, culpability must extend to those who supplied ill-trained and ill-disciplined irregular forces with lethal weaponry without due diligence. Even if the SAM is shown to have been fired by rebels and Russian-made, this would not indicate it was supplied to the rebels by Moscow; they could have stolen them from Ukrainian government troops who have these weapons. If the finger of culpability does point to Moscow, again the resulting strictures in future cannot be restricted just to adversaries and enemies but must be universalised.

It is worth noting in this connection that Amnesty International has called for a halt to the sales of British arms to Israel which, at the time of the MH17 tragedy, has been engaged in an offensive onslaught against the Palestinians in Gaza. Many non-western voices (and some in the West) have already asked why Palestinian lives — more than 500 have been killed at the time of writing, around three-quarters of them civilians, including many children and many hospital patients and staff — should be considered cheaper and more expendable than the people killed over Ukraine. Is the quality of moral outrage at the indiscriminate loss of civilian life to be strained by whether or not it is caused by forces we arm and support?

Of course, the two situations are in no way directly comparable, let alone morally equivalent. Israel has to deal with the reality of the threat of terrorism and rockets fired at its residential areas rather than military targets, plus the fact that the Hamas fighters deliberately hide themselves and their rockets in densely populated areas. Even then, it is hard to see how the humanitarian law requirements (not discretionary policy) of proportionality and military-civilian distinction are satisfied. The obvious double standards of western response does instil and spread cynicism among many others about its moral compass on humanitarian atrocities.

Similarly, the mainstream western press has by and large under-reported and downplayed human rights abuses and humanitarian atrocities committed by pro-western Ukrainians against pro-Russian countrymen in the eastern region.

Nor should those responsible for stoking existing divisions to provoke an unnecessary conflict be allowed to escape accountability. Russia saw elected Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s departure as the result of an illegal coup, orchestrated by dangerous right-wing nationalist elements and supported by interfering European and US officials driven by the goal to claim Ukraine for the West at Russia’s expense. Still fighting the Cold War, the West sought to expand its zone of military, economic and political influence through NATO and the EU.

In November 2013, Europe forced Yanukovych to choose between joining the Eurasian Economic Union — a Moscow-led customs union opposed by Washington as a ploy to re-Sovietise the region — or a free trade and association pact with the EU. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was prepared to accept Ukraine choosing both. Given the deep and intertwined historical, cultural, linguistic and ethnic ties and geopolitical and economic interests, a choice between the West and Russia is an impossible one for Ukraine if it wished to stay united. Yet that is what the EU asked of it. Yanukovych tried to play off Moscow against Brussels, over-reached, and ended up accepting the more generous $15 billion Russian aid package. Having played hardball and lost, the West threw a hissy fit and moved in swiftly to destabilise his regime with the help of nationalist, far right and neo-Nazi groups in Kiev and western Ukraine. At the culmination of this, complained Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, “power in Kiev was seized undemocratically, through violent street protests conducted with the direct participation of ministers and other officials from the US and EU countries”.

It is not hard to see merit in Russia’s complaint. Looked at from its point of view, the West’s policies since the end of the Cold War have intentionally sought to weaken, diminish and provoke Russia in its immediate vicinity; that is, in its irreducible sphere of interest if Russia is to survive as a power of any consequence. The roots of the crisis afflicting the region lie in this foolish policy. Has the price really been worth the gains, and will it still be worth it if we return to Cold War-like tensions? But I’m not holding my breath on the irresponsible western leaders being held at all to account for their short-term-driven and narrow-minded folly. Meanwhile, Moscow’s strategic goal remains unchanged: to prevent the US and EU from gaining leverage in Russia’s backyard, whatever the cost. The means to this end are supplying anti-Kiev factions with enough arms, intelligence, military advisers and money to keep the conflict bubbling. The West would never do this anywhere in the world, would it?

The final set of questions need to be addressed to all airlines — Malaysia Airlines, but also others such as Air India, Jet Airways, Singapore Airlines and Virgin. Why were they still flying over that corridor? Just days earlier, a Ukrainian military transport plane had been brought down by a SAM at high altitude. If the International Civil Aviation Organisation — or whichever body is responsible — was still showing this as a safe flight-path, they must be made to answer for negligence.

This still does not excuse Malaysia Airlines as many others, such as Qantas, had elevated passenger safety above cost savings and diverted their flights.

Still recovering from the baffling tragedy of flight MH370 that went missing some months ago, Malaysia Airlines should have been extra diligent in shying away from avoidable risks.

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