In Hindsight: The Security Council’s Action on Downed Passenger Flights
Over the past 60 years, nearly 20 civilian planes have been shot down in various places around the globe. Some downings occurred when a plane strayed off its route into the territory of a state that perceived the aircraft as a threat (such as El Al flight 402, shot down by Bulgaria on 27 July 1955, or Libyan Arab Airlines flight 114, shot by Israel after it got lost on its way to Cairo on 21 February 1973). Some were shot down accidentally during a military exercise conducted by the state in whose airspace the disaster occurred. Several were deliberately targeted by insurgents on the ground, including Air Rhodesia flight 825, which was downed on 3 September 1978 by the Zimbabwe’s People’s Revolutionary Army, who then rounded up and executed 10 of the 18 survivors on the ground, or three Transair Georgia flights shot at by Abkhazian rebels near or at Sukhumi airport on 21, 22 and 23 September 1993.
Several of these incidents resulted in international frictions and heightened international tension. Prior to the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 on 17 July 2014, however, only two had been discussed by the Council formally in a series of substantive meetings.
In a 1 September 1983 letter to the President of the Council, the Republic of Korea (ROK) requested an urgent meeting after Korean Air Lines flight 007, with 269 people aboard, had been shot down by a Soviet fighter plane. Between 2-12 September, the Council held six open debates (S/PV.2470 through 2474 and S/PV.2476) on the matter. During the first meeting, the ROK called on the Soviet Union (USSR) to provide a detailed account of what happened; offer an apology; guarantee unimpeded access to the crash site by international aviation investigators, such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO); return the remains; and give credible, specific, concrete and effective guarantees against similar actions involving “unarmed civilian airplanes anywhere in the world”. Most speakers echoed these calls. The USSR responded that its airspace had been “rudely violated,” that it tried to establish contact with the plane and that the intruder eventually left the airspace flying towards the Sea of Japan. The USSR representative called the reaction to the incident a “hullabaloo” and implied that the US Central Intelligence Agency had been involved in the incident.
During the subsequent meetings, different scenarios were presented by the USSR and US representatives, with the Cold War rhetoric becoming increasingly shrill. The USSR eventually admitted that the plane was shot down over its airspace and had crashed but continued to insist that flight 007’s straying into Soviet airspace was a deliberate “provocation”.
A draft resolution co-sponsored by both Council and non-Council member states was circulated on 8 September. It deplored the tragic loss of life, urged all states to comply with the aims and objectives of ICAO and to cooperate fully with its efforts to strengthen international civil aviation safety and to prevent the recurrence of the use of armed force against international civil aviation. It also asked the Secretary-General to conduct “a full investigation into the circumstances of the tragedy” and to report the findings within 14 days. The draft was put to a vote on 12 September and vetoed by the USSR (with Poland also voting against and China, Guyana, Nicaragua and Zimbabwe abstaining).
Over the course of the meetings regarding flight 007, several states pointed out the usefulness of conducting a thorough investigation and expressed hopes that there would be improvements in international civil aviation law that would help avoid similar tragedies in the future. Yet five years later, another passenger jet was shot down by a superpower.
On 3 July 1988, Iran Air flight 655 bound for Dubai was shot down by the US Navy missile cruiser USS Vincennes, which was in the Persian Gulf along with warships from five European countries to protect commercial shipping from the dangers posed by the Iran-Iraq war, ongoing since 1980. The US mistook the Airbus A300 for a fighter plane, killing all 290 people on board. Iran requested an urgent meeting of the Security Council in a 5 July letter and held four open debates as of 14 July to consider the matter (S/PV.2818 through 2821). Iran urged the Council to condemn the US for the downing of the airliner and to “take immediate measures to compel the United States to abandon this war-mongering and arrogant mentality in the Persian Gulf”. The US pointed out Iran’s disregard for resolution 598 (adopted in July 1987, it demanded an immediate ceasefire between Iran and Iraq), citing this as a reason for its military presence in the Persian Gulf. The US did not deny shooting down flight 665 yet offered several details, some of which were later proved to be incorrect, to justify its actions, and did not apologise. Intense diplomatic work ensued and on 17 July Iran informed the Secretary-General that it accepted resolution 598. In turn, on 20 July, the Council unanimously adopted resolution 616, in which it expressed deep distress at the US warship’s downing of flight 655, welcomed the ICAO’s decision to conduct an immediate investigation and urged “honourable and durable” settlement of the Iran-Iraq conflict. What followed were several weeks of further diplomatic activity and the establishment in August of the UN Iran-Iraq Military Observer Group. The decade-long conflict was ultimately ended in 1990.
Given the long aftermath of these earlier incidents, it is impossible to predict now whether the tragedy of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 might serve as a catalyst for the political steps that would lead to a settlement of the conflict in Ukraine. Not only does the Council treat each tragedy differently, and at times fails to take any action, as was the case with the still unresolved shooting down over Ndola on 18 September 1961 of the Douglas DC-6B carrying then UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld and 15 others, but each tragedy can play out for years.