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Blame for Ukraine plane not lie solely with those who downed the plane but those who put it in harm

On 7 January, one day before Iran shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane near Tehran, as commercial jets piled into the busy air corridor over neighbouring Iraq, I tweeted: “I hope the lessons of MH17 are not being forgotten.”
That reference to Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 – which was shot down by separatist rebels over eastern Ukraine in 2014 – might seem like an eerie premonition. But it was simply common sense. My concerns were rooted in a basic grasp of the risks of flying through potential conflict zones. Last week’s tragedy has exposed the abject failure of western governments, intelligence agencies and airline industry groups to protect travellers, as they pledged to in the aftermath of MH17.
Consider what was known in the days leading up to the loss of Ukraine International Airlines flight 752. On 3 January, the US goaded Iran by assassinating its most senior military commander, Qassem Suleimani. Iran vowed retribution for what it saw as a declaration of war. US president Donald Trump then upped the ante, suggesting that any Iranian response might provoke a “disproportionate” US strike.
There was little doubt that Iran would follow through on its threat regardless, in one form or another. Neighbouring Iraq was by far the most likely theatre of conflict, owing to the heavy US presence in the country. The assault came in the early hours of 8 January, when Iran fired a volley of ballistic missiles at two Iraqi airbases hosting US and coalition troops. Its attack seemed calibrated to minimise casualties – thereby averting a broader conflict – but no one knew how Washington would react.
Airlines operating in the region were fully aware that their flight paths crossed a potential conflict zone. Yet they received no guidance from the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the wing of the United Nations whose job it is to promote safety and compliance by global carriers. Risk assessments were, instead, made by individual companies and countries – just as they had been before the MH17 disaster. Some Middle Eastern carriers had suspended flights to Baghdad prior to the missile barrage. Some Asian and European ones diverted flights around Iranian airspace. Shortly after the assault, the US banned its airlines from the region. But many others kept to schedule.
It was in this confused climate that Ukraine International Airlines took the fateful decision to operate flight 752 from Tehran on the morning of 8 January – as paramilitary forces on the outskirts of the capital pointed their anti-aircraft missiles skyward, waiting nervously for an American strike. With the benefit of hindsight, “why take the risk?” seems an obvious question to ask. But at the time, the airline’s operations department, like any other, would have likely balanced this with a contrasting question: why cancel the flight?
After all, doing so would have been a purely emotional intervention. None of the entities that are well-placed to conduct risk assessments had publicly urged Ukraine International to stay on the ground. Not the Ukrainian government. Not the Iranian government. Not the US government. Not the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the continent’s aviation regulator. Not the International Air Transport Association, the industry’s main trade group. Not even the ICAO.
Let me be clear here: Iran has committed the gravest of acts. It must be held to account. But no one should feign surprise that soldiers make mistakes in highly charged situations that have the potential to break into war. Blame for flight 752 does not lie solely with those who downed the plane; it also lies with those who put it in harm’s way.
Six years ago, when MH17 was shot down by another paramilitary group, the global airline industry vowed to collaborate more closely with governments and intelligence agencies to keep passengers well away from conflict zones.
The onus fell primarily on western countries, whose institutions have the intelligence capabilities and democratic accountability to drive reforms. Their task was not an easy one. Sovereignty was a major stumbling block: airlines are beholden only to the states in which they are registered. No global body, including the UN, has the legal authority to close overseas air corridors. Commercial factors also muddied the waters: countries such as Iraq and Ukraine earn huge sums of money issuing overflight permits to airlines. Their governments will push back against suggestions that their skies are unsafe, just as foreign airlines will balk at the prospect of costly and time-consuming diversions.
Still, the way forward was obvious. What could not be legally mandated could at least be encouraged. There was talk of more intelligence-sharing and even setting up a new body to collect intelligence about threats, issue global advisories, and chastise those who ignored them. The UN’s ICAO set up a centralised repository for countries to share information, but remained a passive observer. The repository was closed in 2017 due to low engagement. The EU’s EASA set up an information bulletin in 2016. Its latest entry for Iraq, issued in October 2019 and valid until March 2020, acknowledged a threat to civil aviation but stopped short of telling carriers to avoid the airspace. There is no Iranian entry.
The reality is that as flight MH17 fell off the news cycle, so did the impetus to effect change. That cannot happen again. In 2014, I wrote that “further shoot-downs are virtually assured unless decisive action is taken by the industry”. I repeat that warning, emphatically, today.
_The Guardian_