The crash of the Ukrainian Airlines aircraft near Tehran in Iran is a political and legal minefield. Responsibility for the disaster has only just been confirmed by the Iranian government and, in particular, its air force. This seems to have been due to a hasty and ill informed decision to shoot the plane down with a SAM (surface to air missile) in the confusion following an attack on U.S. airbases in Iraq. Determining liability is unlikely to be made quickly. Because the story behind the crash and the death of 176 passengers and crew is still rapidly evolving it is impossible to come to any firm conclusions as yet as events are likely to overtake the release of this article.

The background to the disaster in Iran on Flight UH-752

It is worth backtracking to understand just what led to the downing of flight UH-752. The U.S. Trump led administration confirmed that it had assassinated the head of Iran’s elite al-Qud forces, General Qasseim Suleimani, together with several other military personnel in Baghdad. Setting aside the fact that the Trump administration has so far not  provided Congress with clear evidence why it carried out the assassination, it was assumed that the Iraians would be swift to react.

The attack on Iran’s leading military figure was quickly followed by mass demonstrations across Iran and then a retaliatory attack by their airforce on U.S. military bases in neighboring Iraq.  It seems that both Iraqi and U.S. governments were warned of the missile attacks before they were launched and no-one was killed. A couple of hours after the Iranian attack, it was learned that UH-752, on a routine commercial flight from Tehran’s Imam Khameini airport to Kiev in the Ukraine, had burst into flames shortly after taking off and crashed to the ground nearby, killing everyone on board.

At first, all attention was on the tit-for-tat maneuvers between the U.S. and Iran. It was assumed that the plane crash was just a tragic coincidence. Of the 176 people who were killed, the majority were either Iranian citizens, or Canadians of Iranian descent, on their way back to Canada via Kiev. There didn’t seem to be any reason why Iranian defense personnel would knowingly shoot down a plane carrying so many of its own people.

The situation has since rapidly evolved. Evidence of a missile attack has been provided, specifically video footage of the plane being struck (it was dark at the time) as well as pieces of the probable missile on the ground scattered near the remains of the plane.

The present line the Iranians are taking, after initially suggesting that the crash was caused by a defective engine, is that their own air force indeed shot down the plane with a SAM missile, ‘mistakenly’ thinking the plane was a U.S. cruise missile intent on attacking an Iranian missile base. The Iranian government and its own air force commander have gone on record to acknowledge responsibility and apologize and have claimed they will prosecute the military personnel involved.

Determining liability in an aviation accident that occurs in a conflict zone

The admission of responsibility is an unusual twist in this particular story. The most recent case of a commercial airliner being brought down in a conflict zone was Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 which was shot down by a Russian Bor missile in Eastern Ukraine in July 2004. As far as most authorities were able to determine in the investigation that followed, the missile was fired by a missile launcher operated by ethnic Russian rebels, again apparently making a mistake about the identity of the plane and its purpose. It has been alleged that the missile and launcher were brought into the disputed territory from neighboring Russia and spirited back across the border after the crash had occurred. Russia and Russian rebels in the Ukraine have never admitted responsibility for the downing of the plane.

In the most recent accident, it looks as if the thrust of any legal action (and anger) will be directed towards the Iranian government and its military. Even if there weren’t Canadian, Ukrainian and British citizens on board the stricken plane, Iranians themselves will want to get to the bottom of what has been a badly handled disaster.

Could the airline be held liable?

Could Ukrainian Airlines be held liable? In the 2014 Malaysian Airlines crash, a number of relatives of deceased Malaysian citizens attempted to sue Malaysian Airlines, alleging that they shouldn’t have used the high level flight path they used despite the known fact that Eastern Ukraine was in effect a war zone in which military planes had already been downed. It would probably be hard to justify a similar case against Ukrainian Airlines as the situation was unprecedented. Did the Iranian government warn commercial airlines that they were about to launch a missile strike? Did Ukrainian Airlines and other airlines know before their plane left Tehran that there was a possible danger? We will have to wait for a thorough and objective investigation to be completed before we know the answers to these and other questions.

Families of all the passengers killed are understandably angry and will want to know exactly what happened. It is incumbent on all those who had something to do with this disaster to  give family members closure and provide fair financial compensation. Thoughts, prayers and apologies help, but don’t go far enough.