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Applicability of international law for justice: Some remarks on Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752

By Punsara Amarasinghe and Esshan Jayawardane 

The pandemonium erupted following Soleimani’s death seems to have encircled the embattled regime in Iran after admitting that Ukrainian flight was shot down by their force with 176 people on board. The protestors who chanted death to America at Soleimani’s funeral changed their tune when they realized the government they reverently supporting has lied to them about the cause of the air crash as a technical failure. A week after the tragedy Teheran has openly claimed that air crash was a result of human failure as a missile operator misidentified it as a cruise missile after Iran launched missiles to the US airbases in Iraq.

In the meantime, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s persistent remarks on demanding justice for the victims has caused an uproar amid the tension. Indeed, 74 victims on board happened to be Canadians albeit they were either ethic Iranians or with Iranian origin. This situation raises some concern whether Canada, Sweden, Ukraine and the UK seek some judicial remedy under international law for Iran’s act of shooting down an aircraft which carried its citizens. This situation is a sheer reminder of what exactly happened in 1988 when Iranian flight was shot down by the US Vincennes, a missile cruiser of the US navy in the Persian Gulf. In the situation in 1988, Iran filed a case against the US in International Court of Justice and within the time limit fixed for the filing of its counter memorial, the USA raised preliminary objections to the jurisdictions of the court. However, both parties later entered into an agreement in a full and final settlement resulting in the closure of the case in the ICJ.

From a vantage point, the ability for Canada or other affected states to apply international law to seek justice should be mainly understood by examining the current international law measurements covering the civil aircraft. The Convention on International Civil Aviation16 (Chicago Convention) is the core document regulating international civil aviation. Its governing body, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is responsible, amongst other duties, for minimum standards of flight safety. Iran has signed and ratified the convention, hence remained legally obliged to uphold it. It’s Article 3 has explicitly stated “The contracting states must refrain from resorting to the use of weapons against civil aircraft and in that case of interception, the lives of persons on board and safety of aircraft must not be endangered. Secondly, the Montreal Convention for the Suppression of unlawful Acts against the safety of Civil Aviation remains the other necessary black letter legal mechanism available in international law.

Also, the UN charter being the zenith of international law has framed certain conditions regarding the use of force. In particular, its Article 2 (4) requires all member states shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” It is assumed that the use of force against a foreign civil aircraft, even within the boundaries of a nation state triggers international law in that it constitutes a “use of force” within the meaning of the above rule. In the case of the Iranian shot down of the Ukrainian flight, the issue of “Self-defense “arises as it occurred amid an escalating situation followed by Solemani’s assassination by the US Drones and Iranians military response to it.  If Canada triggers international law to seek justice for its lost citizens, Iran is likely to rely on the Article 51 of the United Nations Charter which verifies member states inherent rights for the self-defense. However, it is important to consider that yardstick behind the applicability of “Self Defense “is rather subtle.  Especially, the justification of applying “self-defense “has been generally referred to the situation of “imminent threat “.  Even before the creation of Article 51 in the UN Charter, the scope of imminent threat was discussed as a complex issue in the early development in the 19th century international law.

As an example in the Famous Caroline test affair between the USA and Great Britain, American statesman Daniel Webster described the imminent threat as “instant, overwhelming and leaving no choice of means and no moment for deliberation”. Given the scenario that flight was shot down just hours after Iran attacked two US bases in Iraq, the salient contention that one can raise is that Iranian missile operator’s deadly mistake of misidentifying the Ukrainian plane as an American missile ended up in a calamity. Nevertheless, there was no clear claim to build an imminent threat from a civil aircraft.  Yet, the claim made by Teheran has affirmed shooting down of the flight was a result of human error or otherwise a mistake.

The availability of remedial solutions for mistakes in international law are tiny and depends on the specific circumstances.  In this particular situation liability of Iran appears to be more severe than the claim it yields by justifying the act as a result of a grave mistake. The initial Iranian attempt to obstruct the investigation in the aftermath of the air crash and its deceptive act of portraying the air crash as a result of a technical error intensifies the culpability. More importantly plane would have never met its ill fate if Iranian authorities closed down its air space on that day knowing well that hostilities with the US can easily escalate following their missile strikes. This situation upsets Iranian claim of a sincere mistake caused the tragedy as the given factors aptly show even if the mistake was an honest one, the acts Iranian state which paves the path to the catastrophic event were not reasonable.

All in all, the most less troublesome answer that can help Iran before any possible international law claim by Canada, Ukraine, Sweden or Great Britain is to admit the liability as a state and frame the reparations for those lost lives of individuals. The act of conducting a fair investigation, providing reparation and more importantly the unconditional apology as a state can avert Iran from further diplomatic isolation as a pariah state.

Punsara Amarasinghe is a PhD researcher in institute of law and politics at Scuola Superiore Sant Anna in Pisa, Italy. He held one-year research fellowship in international law at Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia. Eshan Jayawardane is an independent researcher resides is Napiers, New Zealand. He completed his BA in Delhi University and completed his MA in International Relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India. 

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