Is this the end of civil aviation?

In January 2020, as tensions were mounting in the Middle East following the assassination of Iranian General Qassim Soleimani by the United States, the world looked as though it might be on the brink of conflict. The threat of an escalation in the region was mounting, with the Iranian military mobilising for a fight.

That was, until on the evening of the 8th of January when tragedy struck – the Ukrainian Airlines flight 752 leaving Tehran for Kyiv was shot down by a Tor M-1 Surface to Air Missile. The flight, which was carrying 167 passengers, came down at the end of the runway. Many of the passengers were on their way to Canada via the Ukraine.

For days the Iranian Regime tried to claim that the aircraft had come down as the result of a technical fault, however Western Intelligence agencies quickly found that it had been brought down by a rocket fired by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

On the 11th of January, the Iranian Government finally admitted that they had shot down the plane – claiming that trigger happy operators had thought that the jet was a guided missile. The deaths of the 167 civilians ultimately de-escalated tensions in the region and forced the regime to back down.

This of course is by no means the first time that a hostile force has mistaken a civilian jet for a military target. In July 2014, the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was brought down by Separatist forces in the Donbas. Unlike in the Iranian case years later, the pro-Russian rebel groups were very quick to claim responsibility.

On the same day that they brought down the flight, a group of rebels commandeered a hotel and held a press conference in which they claimed to have brought down a Ukrainian troop transport plane. However, as reports started to come in that the wreckage on the ground was from a civilian aircraft, they withdrew their claim.

Investigators from Ukraine and the Netherlands later found that the rebels had used a Russian made Buk Surface to Air missile that had been driven across the border on the same day. All 298 passengers and crew died in the incident – which has since become the subject of propaganda and conspiracy in Russia and amongst their supporters.

These tragic episodes are just a couple of many incidents in recent years involving civilian aircraft being caught up in broader conflicts. The most recent of these, is of course the forcing down of a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius on the 23rd of May 2021.

The flight, which was on its final approach to Vilnius, was forced to land when a Belarusian air force MiG fighter scrambled to escort the plane to Minsk Airport. The claim from the Belarusian side was that there was a ‘security threat’ on board – early reports claimed that they had called in a ‘bomb threat’.

Forced to comply, Ryanair flight 4978, landed at Minsk International. Upon arrival, all passengers were forced to disembark for ‘security screening’. It was at this point that journalist and opposition activist Raman Protasevich and his girlfriend were taken into custody by security forces.

The Belarusian government had forced the plane down for the simple purpose of arresting a political opponent. The incident, which abused international aviation protocol, creates a further unsettling precedent. This new precedent is that any nation is now free to bring down any flight they want, at any time, in order to arrest any passenger.

The 26-year-old Mr Protasevich should not have had any reason to worry when he boarded a flight in one EU Member State that was destined for another EU Member State, and yet, because the flight went over the very country he was trying to avoid, he became the victim of a complex and arbitrary arrest.

Civil Aviation is increasingly finding itself the direct target of covert operations, and in the firing line in conflict. Alexei Navalny was poisoned on a flight in 2020. Kim Jong-Nam, the eldest son of the North Korean despot Kim Jong-Il, was assassinated at an airport in Malaysia in 2017. And of course, the devastating terror attacks that took place on the 11th of September 2001 saw the planes themselves weaponised against civilians.

The lines between what is acceptable and unacceptable in conflict are increasingly being blurred – and as a result civilian are increasingly the targets, especially in aviation. However, this is only possible because Western responses to such crimes are limp at best.

The conclusions of the European Council Meeting on the 24th of May 2021 to the hijacking of Ryanair flight 4978, is at best a slow burn response. Calling on EU Flag Carriers not to travel over Belarus, something they had already started to do before the meeting, and calling for the Commission to come up with a list of new sanctions targets. This is of course not the fault of well-meaning heads of government, but rather a flaw in the way in which the EU responds to a crisis.

Member States can act far quicker on their own than through the European Institutions, because the EU must go through processes that take time. And time is a resource in scarcely available when dealing with autocratic regimes.

After all, the reason that the Belarusian regime believed that it could get away with this act, is because it saw how slowly the European Union responded to previous incidents. In particular they would have been looking at how Russia managed to get away for so long with the poisoning of Alexei Navalny on an internal flight, and the slow response to the taking down of MH17 with military force.

Ultimately, if the EU is to be taken seriously as a regional power, it must reform the way in which it responds to crises such as this. It must be much quicker to introduce new sanctions and respond to emerging situations. For in the time that it took them to discuss the hijacking of the Ryanair flight, the Belarusian Security Services had already managed to extort a confession from Mr Protasevich, whose parents now claim is in intensive care in hospital.

The West needs to shed caution and bureaucracy in cases such as these – when it is obvious who was responsible. Decisive action must be taken both as a means of justice and as a means of future deterrence. Too often hostile powers believe that they can get away with carrying out any action they want – outside of the international order – because they believe that they will not have to pay for it in the long term. It is time that this changed.

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