An international mission of forensic experts and unarmed police led by the Netherlands, with Australian and Malaysian participation, has temporarily suspended its investigation and recovery work at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine. The mission, which lasted just five days until it stopped on Aug. 6 because of the volatile security situation in the region, recovered mostly personal belongings as bodies apparently remain.
The Dutch are leading the investigation into the cause of the crash, which occurred July 17 and killed all 298 people on board — primarily citizens from the Netherlands, Malaysia and Australia. The Australian mission to the United Nations said that as “search and security conditions improve,” the country would return its team to the area “to ensure all identifiable remains have been recovered.”
In addition, a small American military team of logistics and air planning personnel has arrived in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, to help investigate the downing of the flight. The team, however, will not visit the crash site but stay in Kiev.
The International Civil Aviation Organization, a specialized agency of the UN, is also involved in the investigation and response to the crash. The tragedy, for which the United States and other nations have blamed pro-Russian separatists, has prompted airlines to change their routes and reassess the risks of flying over conflict zones. Many commercial carriers were flying over Ukraine as well as Iraq on routes from Europe to the Middle East and Asia, but heightened security after MH17 and new fighting by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Iraq have prompted a change in flight paths. These and other relevant issues will be discussed among airlines and national safety boards in the weeks ahead.
The UN agency has established a task force on airline safety in response to the crash, and on Aug. 14 to 15, it will meet for the first time at its base in Montreal to discuss risks to civil aviation in conflict zones. It is expected to present recommendations on how information can be shared among member states, but since the UN agency can act only with the agreement of all member countries, it will undoubtedly face challenges with Russia and Ukraine seated at the same table, given that the conflict in Ukraine pits the government against pro-Russian separatists.
While the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has been playing a large role in Ukraine from the beginning of the conflict, the International Civil Aviation Organization entered the scene just weeks ago, when the airplane crashed. In late July, it held a meeting in Montreal with the head of the International Air Transport Association, a trade association for airlines, and air traffic controller representatives to address how countries can make case-by-case decisions on flights and whether the practice of nations assessing the safety of their own airspaces should continue.
The UN agency, for example, had raised concerns before the crash about more than one air traffic services provider operating in the Simferopol Flight Information Region, which covers the Crimean peninsula, but Flight MH17 was flying outside that area.
The agency rules say that the nation where a crash occurs, in this case Ukraine, is responsible for leading any follow-up investigation. But with the case of the Malaysian crash, strong opposition from Russia prompted the Netherlands, a more neutral nation that suffered the most deaths from the crash, to take control.
Officials from the UN agency have been assisting Dutch and other authorities at the crash site. Early on, the agency said that once the so-called black boxes were handed over by the separatists, “the cockpit voice recorder is in good condition . . . the digital flight data recorder is still under review.”
The agency cannot restrict airspace and does not issue advisories regarding armed conflict and the threat to civilian airliners. In a statement, it said that it was consulting with the International Air Transport Association “on the respective roles of states, airlines and international organizations for assessing the risk of airspace affected by armed conflict.” Any changes to the agency’s role risks tampering with the sovereignty of airspace and a nation’s ability to control its skies. Airlines are likely to maintain full responsibility for determining flight paths and the risks involved, yet the UN can help to keep airspace regulators informed of trouble spots.
“Nonbinding advisories may be possible,” a source close to the UN agency was quoted by Reuters, using the acronym for the organization. “Airlines want ICAO’s involvement as ICAO may have better access to government sources of security intelligence, and thus could help make better information available to airlines.”
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) until recently had about a dozen monitors at the crash site, which is in the Donetsk region, and was the first international organization to retrieve information from the area after MH17 was downed, sending three forensic experts who stayed 24 hours to arrange for the transfer of bodies. More officials were sent to work with the Dutch-led mission in August, but the OSCE has temporarily suspended its effort as well, citing security conditions.
The organization reported that on Aug. 7 its team, with the Dutch, Malaysian and Australian contingent of 64 experts and unarmed police, went to the village of Rozsypne, close to the crash site, to encourage people to hand over any personal belongings from the crash they might have been holding. No human remains were found in the area by the experts, the organization said from its headquarters in Vienna.
Even as the UN aviation agency, like most others in the world body, must maintain a neutral stance, the conflict in eastern Ukraine and the downing of MH17 has been extremely political in nature. After Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, suggested that the attack against the plane may amount to a war crime, tensions continue to be high regarding the matter at the UN Security Council, where Russia, which backs the separatist movement, is a permanent member. (The Security Council did, however, pass a resolution that authorized an independent investigation into the crash, among other mandates.)
For now, the UN aviation agency will operate as an intermediary, similar to the role of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and a possible expansion or reshaping of the agency’s abilities was not sought by many of the participants at the July meeting in Montreal.
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Alexander Brotman is the Joseph S. Nye Jr. External Relations Intern with the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. He has a B.A. in film studies and media and communications from Muhlenberg College. He has worked for State Representative Alice Peisch of Massachusetts, Africa Center in Dublin, Harvard School of Public Health and Amnesty International.