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MH17: condemn but learn

by Ramesh Thakur

On July 21, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted an Australian-sponsored resolution condemning “in the strongest terms,” the downing of Malaysian 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 and demanded those responsible be held to account.

Australia took the lead in the tough resolution because 37 Australian citizens and residents were among the dead. The strongly worded resolution was adopted so swiftly because the world was united in grief and outrage at the tragedy. We have a right to expect that a commercial flight in an approved air corridor will not be shot down. As this is not the first such incident, the response needs to move beyond one resolution to a set of protocols and agreements to govern any future repeat.

On Sept. 1, 1983, the Soviet Union shot down Korean Air Flight 007 near Sakhalin, killing 269 people, mistaking it for a U.S. military spy plane that had ignored warning signals to enter sensitive Soviet airspace. On July 3, 1988, the U.S. warship Vincennes shot down Iran Air flight 655 flying within its approved flight path with a surface-to-air missile (SAM), killing 290 people. On Oct. 4, 2001, Ukraine’s military shot down a Russian passenger jet returning from Israel over the Black Sea, killing 78.

There were no independent international investigations. Those responsible were not held criminally accountable. In the case of the Iran Air flight the U.S. admitted culpability and paid $62 million in reparations, but the Vincennes commander was not officially reprimanded. Some civilian planes were also brought down with U.S.-supplied missiles by the mujahedeen fighting the Soviet occupation troops in the 1980s.

It is not acceptable to respond to the tragedies through the lens of friends and adversaries. We need shared understandings on how to deal with all such incidents through impartial, credible and prompt international investigations. The investigation into the MH17 tragedy could set a helpful precedent.

All the above incidents listed were accidents; none was a deliberate act of knowingly bringing down a civilian airliner. They were not, therefore, acts of terrorism or murder, which must have intent. The distinction is readily grasped with Pan Am Flight 103 that was brought down by a bomb over Lockerbie on Dec. 21, 1988, for which two Libyan agents were convicted of terrorism.

It is still a crime, manslaughter, and those responsible must be held to criminal account. Culpability must also extend to those who supply the lethal weaponry without due diligence. It is worth noting in this connection that Amnesty International has called for a halt to the sales of British arms to Israel because of its Gaza offensive. Many ask 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 compared to the MH17 dead. 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, plus the fact that the Hamas fighters deliberately hide themselves and their rockets in densely populated areas. Even so, it is hard to see how the humanitarian law requirements of proportionality and military-civilian distinction are satisfied. The obvious double standards of Western response instills and spreads cynicism among many others about its moral compass: some lives are indeed less equal than others.

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

Nor should those responsible for stoking sectarian 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 nationalist elements, and supported by interfering European and U.S. 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, Europe forced Yanukovych to choose between joining the Eurasian Economic Union — a Moscow-led customs union opposed by Washington as a ploy to re-Sovietize the region — or a free trade and association pact with the European Union.

Russia 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. When Yanukovych chose Russia’s more generous $15 billion aid package, having played hardball and lost, the West threw a hissy fit. The U.S. and EU moved to destabilize his regime with the help of 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 U.S. 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? 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 U.S. 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?

Ramesh Thakur is a professor at Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy.