Making sense of the Flight MH17 tragedy

A Malaysia Airlines passenger plane crashed on Thursday in a rebel-held part of Ukraine, killing the 298 passengers and crew on board. The victims were from at least 10 countries. The Ukrainian authorities are accusing separatists of shooting down the jet using a Russian-supplied surface-to-air missile. Moscow has denied the charge. Here's a snapshot of views on key questions raised by the disaster.

Why was the plane flying over the troubled Ukraine region in the first place?

  • By Geoffrey Dell, Associate Professor/Discipline Leader of Accident Investigation and Forensics at Central Queensland University. This is an excerpt from a longer article at, a website of analysis from academics in Australia and Britain.

MALAYSIA Airlines said in a statement that the flight route was "declared safe" by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

The prima facie evidence says that it was not safe, so somebody made a mistake. ICAO issued advisories weeks ago that airlines should avoid this area.

Other airlines have already said that they changed their air routes in response to that advisory, but for reasons yet unknown, Malaysia Airlines did not change its routes over the Ukraine region...

Outside of any conflict, the airspace over Ukraine is just part of the normal air routes to Europe and a reasonable route for many airlines to minimise flight path distance. At any other time, there would be no problems flying in this area...

One of the other factors influencing this tragedy is that local airspace managers for that area did not close all the airspace over the region; they closed only the airspace below 32,000 ft.

Flight MH17 was reported to be flying at a height of 33,000 ft, just 1,000 ft above the restricted airspace over Ukraine.

ICAO has also issued a statement saying that the aircraft was not in the restricted zone...

Airlines should be taking all the precautions they can with commercial flight plans. They are supposed to take action to protect their passengers, their crew and their aircraft - their three primary assets - and if you have intelligence and advisories saying that this is an unsafe area, then they should avoid it and find a different route.

What does the MH17 crash say about the military role of non-state actors?

  • By Kathy Gilsinan, an associate editor at The Atlantic. This is an excerpt from a longer piece on the American magazine's website at

GIVEN that MH17 was reportedly flying at 33,000 ft when it was shot down, such an attack would indeed represent a major feat for a non-state actor.

There are historical precedents for civilian aircraft being shot down by missiles, but one reason it's a relatively rare occurrence is that the necessary capabilities tend to be under the control of governments.

"There aren't that many insurgent groups that have that kind of a capability," says terrorism specialist Max Abrahms, who teaches political science at Northeastern University in Boston.

"But in this case, it actually makes sense" that an insurgent group shot down the plane, he says. States might as a general rule have better weapons than insurgent groups, but "really, that power asymmetry goes out the window when the non-state actor has strong backing from a government. Particularly from a government as weaponised as Russia"...

Whether or not it was a mistake, the incident could set a new precedent on the world's battlefields. As governments have acquired better and better weapons, and either lost control of them as in Libya or given them away as in Russia, "the quality of weaponry falling into the hands of these militants has gone way up", Mr Abrahms says.

How will the crash affect the wider Ukraine conflict?

  • By Marc Champion, Bloomberg View columnist. This is an excerpt of a longer piece.

WHETHER or not the Ukrainian Interior Ministry's claim that pro-Russia separatists shot down a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet over Eastern Ukraine today proves true, the tragedy should be the catalyst to end this manufactured conflict...

If a civilian airliner was indeed shot down, this would be shocking news. It would suggest either that Russia has given the rebels a substantial mobile missile system which goes far beyond anything they have had before, or that the Ukrainians themselves shot the plane down (according to Interfax, the rebels are claiming that the Ukrainians thought the airliner was a Russian spy plane).

Anything short of an unrelated aircraft malfunction would suggest that this conflict is escalating in a very disturbing way.

It would also demand that Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukraine's government and Western leaders move beyond trading barbs over sanctions, and find a way to disarm the rebels, send them home and accommodate the legitimate concerns of Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine.

Who will be handling the investigation on downed Flight MH17?

  • By Vernon Nase, Associate Professor of Law at Curtin University. This is an excerpt from a longer article at, a website of analysis from academics in Australia and Britain.

THE event appears to have occurred in sovereign Ukrainian airspace, and the debris is littered within its territorial borders.

As a consequence of this obligation, the black box flight data recorders - reported to be in the hands of the Russians - should be turned over to the Ukrainian authorities.

If the Russians do have the black box and refuse to hand it over, they would be in breach of their treaty obligations, and there would no doubt be an international outcry. But whoever has the black box, it needs to go to the Ukrainians first for analysis as part of any investigation.

Malaysia also has a right to be a party to the investigations as the flag state of the aircraft.

Article 26 of the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation also provides that the state in which the aircraft is registered should have the chance to appoint observers to be present at the inquiry.

In conducting its investigation, Ukraine might call on other states to assist, and it is likely in these circumstances that other states including, possibly, the Netherlands, Australia and other European states might provide support and assistance in the conduct of the investigation...

There are two prior incidents that are loosely analogous to the situation of MH17.

The first was the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight KAL007 by a Russian military jet in the Sea of Japan. This led to an amendment of the Chicago Convention through the insertion of Article 3 bis, which prohibits the use of force against civilian aircraft.

Arguably, the closest analogy is the incident involving the misidentification of and shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 by the USS Vincennes with the loss of 290 lives in the Iran-Iraq war.

The dispute associated with this event was heading for the International Court of Justice before it was withdrawn with the agreement of both parties.

The Reagan administration subsequently made ex gratia payments of US$300,000 (S$372,500) a head to the families of the deceased passengers, without ever accepting legal liability for the incident.

Perhaps, if sufficient evidence points in Russia's direction, it might save face with the international community if it contemplates making such payments.

It is perhaps too early in proceedings to contemplate this course of action as we need the investigation to proceed.