November 19, 2017

Lessons of the MH17 disaster revisited

By Barend ter Haar.

Almost three years have passed since, on 17 July 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down above eastern Ukraine and all the 298 people on board were killed. As I argued in an article published shortly after the disaster, it was the result of the unfortunate coincidence of the following four factors:

  • weak governance leading to internal conflict
  • Russian interference
  • a long-range surface-to-air missile in separatist hands
  • a civilian airplane flying over the conflict area

Since that time a lot of additional information has come available, in particular as a result of the thorough investigations by the Dutch Safety Board and by an international Joint Investigation Team. The goal of the Dutch Safety Board was to draw safety lessons from the accident for future use, whereas the criminal investigation by the Joint Investigation Team is aimed at identifying the people that were responsible for the crash. I have incorporated their findings in a revised version of my article.

The investigations of the Dutch Safety Board and the Joint Investigation Team both deal with the technical questions: What exactly happened? Who is responsible? and How to avoid the risks of flying above a country in conflict? These are important questions, but they should not make us lose sight of the other factors that made the disaster possible and to make an effort to draw lessons from them.

What can governments do to prevent such a disaster from happening again? The easy answer is to avoid the airspace above Eastern Ukraine. But what about the other factors? What can be done to prevent armed groups in, for example, the Middle East or North Africa from getting long-range surface-to-air missiles? How to stop Russian brinkmanship? And, finally, what can be done to prevent countries from slipping into civil war as a result of bad governance?

These are questions without easy answers, but they deserve at least as much attention as the technical questions surrounding the crash. However, so far these questions have received far less attention of the Dutch government. It is interesting to compare the enormous effort of the Dutch government to reconstruct the crash into the smallest technical detail with the limited effort it has put in addressing the political and strategic problems that made the disaster possible.

At least one lesson seems obvious: MH17 broke the illusion that the Dutch government cherished for some time that foreign policy is little more than promoting short term national interests and that diplomacy is something of the past. However, building up a foreign policy that actively promotes a just and sustainable international order, not as a matter of charity but as a strategic goal, might be more difficult than reconstructing an airplane out of thousands of pieces.

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