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89 victims from Ukrainian plane crash had ties with Canada

In total, 176 passengers had died on board the Kyiv-bound Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752. 82 were Iranians and 63 Canadians, however, many students, faculty and researchers from more than a dozen Canadian universities were among those who died on that plane that was shot down. The Canadian Press, the national news agency, confirmed that 89 victims from Flight PS752 had ties with Canada.


Vítimas do voo 752

Canadians are devasted, as the rest of the world, and they expect answers in the next weeks. The plane crashed in Tehran, where Canada doesn’t have an Embassy since 2012. Under global aviation rules, Iran has the right to lead the investigation and according with officials from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, the country is giving Canadian investigators access to the “black box” flight data.

Canadian PM, Justin Trudeau, was the first international leader to inform that airplane was shot down on 8 January by Iranian missiles. Later the country admitted the attack and explained that was a mistake.

This is one of the biggest, single death tolls involving Canadian citizens in the last 30 years. The worst one was in 1985 when a bomb exploded on board of an  Air India flight over the Atlantic Ocean and the plane had been en route from Montreal to London. 268 Canadians lost their lives in that accident.

Milénio Stadium spoked this week with three experts about it: Miriam M. Muller-Rensh who as a PHD from University of Victoria in Political Science and International Relations; Anna M. Agathangelou, an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at York University and Mohammad H. Fadel, Professor at University of Toronto Faculty of Law.

Miriam M. Müller-Rensch

Milénio Stadium: Why did the Flight 752 crashed and who are the responsibles for this tragic event?

Miriam M. Müller-Rensch: Without doubt these two questions are clearly linked and their answer is just as complex and open-ended as the still ongoing conflict between the U.S. and Iran itself which lies at the heart of the reasons for the shoot-down of 752: all of the 176 passengers killed aboard the Ukrainian jet were civilians, but their deaths occurred on stage of the theatre of an escalating military conflict. The overall circumstances of this tragedy, reasons and effects, lie beyond personal grief of the victims’ families – a fact which may even intensify feelings of loss and injustice.

Right now, one of the few things that we know for sure, is that flight 752 was shot down by an Iranian missile. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani himself called it a “disastrous mistake” on his Twitter account. However, it is not fully clear, whether the casualties were indeed “unintentional” or not – especially as the Iranian leadership until recently had repeatedly denied their involvement, while blaming technical failure for the plane crash. Investigations of the voice and flight data recorders from the 752 aircraft by UN aviation agency ICAO who will be supported by Canada’s Transportation Safety Board (TSB) might give us new evidence for a better judgement of Iran’s affirmations of innocence. What we also know something about is the political situation in Iran at the time when the plane was shot down. Conflict between Iran and the U.S. had been escalating tit-for-tat since the official withdrawal of Washington from the joint nuclear deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear program in spring 2018.

In the first days of January the conflict reached a boiling point. Among other, less radical options to deal with Iran, the United States decided to target and kill Qasem Soleimani, a General of the state of Iran, but also the commander of the “Quds Force” which the United States recently declared a terrorist group. Iran’s reaction to Soleimani’s death had been surprisingly restrained when missiles hit U.S. military bases on Iraq with no fatalities. The Iranian government had given sufficient warning before their attack of a military target and their statements made it clear that no further military action would follow.

In this climate close to the brink of war, civilian flight 752 was shot – mistaken for a hostile missile, as Iranian officials have claimed. The biggest question which remains is why the Iranian government had not closed down Iranian airspace to civilian traffic in this aggressive political climate.

MS: Most of the victims were Iranians. Iran missed the target?

M.M.Müller-Rensch:  As we still cannot say whether the plane was taken down on purpose or not, we should ask ourselves, what the death of so many innocent people, most of them from Iran and Canada, means for the Iranian government. When General Soleimani was killed, the conflicting parties inside Iran apparently rallied round the Iranian flag – a positive development for the dictatorial regime in Teheran which has been battling with opposition and discontent for decades, but even more so since U.S. sanctions hit the Iranian economy. So the situation for the religious regime had changed for the better after Soleimani’s death, delivering a justification for the regime’s anti-Western stance and rigorous policies towards their own population. The death of so many civilians, and especially Iranian and Iranian-Canadian citizens endangered this new won solidarity among Iranians towards their regime. So the tragedy of 752 clearly did the regime more harm than good, which speaks for an accident. Interestingly, the regime’s attempt to downplay the shoot-down as technical failure further deteriorated the regimes position. Now, the Iranian people are not only grieving, but are pretty angry with their leaders: more and more protesters are rallying on the streets, calling for justice and a change of the regime’s policies.

MS:  After this tragical accident, what kind of consequences can we expect on the international level?

M.M.Müller-Rensch: Iran has signaled full cooperation and support for the investigations of the crash and admitted being responsible for the shoot-down. Tragedies like this have happened in similar situations, for example when the U.S. shot down civilian Iran Air flight 655 in 1988 by mistake. The major question we should think about now is firstly whether the tit-for-tat-escalation between Washington and Teheran could have been prevented and secondly what we can do to prevent similar incidents in the future from happening. The story between the countries goes way back, when Washington ended diplomatic relations with the new revolutionary regime in Teheran in 1979. Since then, the enmities between the two countries have turned out to be extremely long-lived. The nuclear deal between Iran, the U.S. and the European Union had been a first silver lining on the horizon. And then Washington decided not to trust Teheran and withdrew from the deal: One of the major reasons given was Iran’s de-facto expansionist foreign policy and the potential threat the increase Tehran’s influence in the Middle East would pose. But when Washington withdrew from the deal, it opened the door for Teheran to get out of the agreement as well. Without a nuclear deal there is not much else the international community can do to prevent Iran from arming their nuclear arsenal – except for military action.

In the prologue to their to a fro, both parties had step by step moved away from diplomacy and tended to ignore the rules of international law. We may never know for sure, but is very likely that by avoiding this tug-of-war with military violence, a war-like situation unnecessarily endangering civilians could have been avoided, too. Secondly, we have to be aware that the conflict between the U.S. and Iran is far from over – a conflict which still can damage both countries and their closest allies severely, if it expanded into a full-fledged war. Without doubt, another war would harm the warn-torn region of the Middle East beyond repair and endanger Europe as its neighbor. The week of flexing military muscles while ignoring possible consequences has ended with an outrageous tragedy and all parties involved better return to the negotiation table to lend their statements of sympathy at least a thin coat of credibility.

Mohammad Fadel

Milénio Stadium: Some of the victims were living in Canada, however not all had Canadian citizenship. Is this a problem?

Mohammad Fadel: Iranian citizens might have particular legal issues in making a claim for compensation against their own government.  US sanctions against Iran might also make it difficult for Iran to pay compensation to non-Iranians, although I can’t imagine that the US would be unwilling to provide an exception to its sanctions regime for purposes of making compensation payments. There might also be issues involved in who should receive the bodies of the dead passengers, particularly if the deceased has living relatives in both Iran and Canada, for example.

MS: Family victims should ask for compensation to Iran or Ukrainian Airlines?

MF: From both Iran and Ukrainian Airlines. Well, there are lots of tricky questions involved in suing another country, but I am acting under the assumption that Iran will want to offer meaningful compensation to non-Iranian citizens.  They could, however, assert sovereign immunity if victims attempted to sue them in foreign courts (I suspect that they would in fact not agree to be sued in a foreign court, but that doesn’t meant Iran won’t offer substantial competition.) At this stage, however, it would be important to preserve all possible claims, so it would also make sense also to seek whatever compensation is available from Ukraine Airlines, although there are complicated questions of international law involved.

Milénio Stadium: Canada has the right to have access to black boxes of the flight 752?

MF: I don’t know. Presumably Ukraine would have a greater claim given that it was their plane that was destroyed.

Anna M. Agathangelou

Milénio Stadium: Why were so many Canadians on this flight?

Anna M. Agathangelou: There were so many Canadians on flight 752 as a result of the existence of a large Iranian community in Canada. There are about 210,000 citizens of Iranian descent in Canada per the latest federal census. Canada is also a popular country for Iranian graduate and postdoctoral work. Most of those students were on winter break and were returning back to school or to research centers to continue with their research work. As there is no direct flight from Tehran to Toronto, the Ukraine International Airlines flight was the most affordable one and its route was from Tehran to Kiev to Toronto.

Milénio Stadium: Canadian PM was the first international leader to advance that the airplane was hit by Iranian missiles, which was later confirmed. Do you believe this was a retaliation because of Gen. Qasem Soleimani death?

A.M.A.: Trudeau’s speculation on who hit the plane ended up being accurate. Iranian missiles, two of which hit the passenger jet in around 30 seconds, ended up killing all 176 people on board. The Iranians decided to attack in retaliation for the American strike that killed Gen. Qasem Soleimani last week.

MS: How was diplomatic relationship between Canada and Iran before this accident and how will it be from now on?

A.M.A.: The diplomatic relations between the two countries have been ridden with tensions. In 2012 diplomatic relations ceased. The Canadian embassy closed, and Canada expelled the Iranian diplomats from Canada on the grounds that Iran was not in compliance with a UN Security Council resolution about its nuclear program.  The Harper Conservatives went so far to list Iran as a state terrorist sponsor and list the Revolutionary Guard and the Quds Force, led by Gen. Qasem Soleimani, as terrorist operations. In 2016 Mr. Trudeau and the liberals announced their interest in re-establishing diplomatic ties with Iran with the possibility of restoring diplomatic ties.  Since the “accident” Mr. Trudeau has spoken to President Hassan Rouhani of Iran and demanded that the Iranian cooperate with Canadian investigators. In the last few days, Mr. Trudeau has called for the victims to be identified and repatriated for burial as well as for Iran to compensate the families.  In his words, “I am hurt like all Canadians. I am angry like all Canadians. But unlike many people I have a job to do that will be able to help these families directly. Getting answers for them is my entire focus right now.”

MS: Iran plane crash killed 63 Canadians – it’s already considered one of the biggest disasters involving Canadians in recent times.

A.M.A.: Indeed, this is a huge geopolitical structural loss not only for Canada but also for Iran and the rest of the world. The majority of the Iranians whose destination was Canada were the best minds in the world carrying out substantive and innovative research programs as well as contributing immensely in the enhancement of the Canada. Caught in the fire between the “compulsive” decision by the US to kill Gen. Qasem Soleimani and Iran to avenge his death these innocent Canadians were killed along with the rest of the passengers. The rhetoric of Donald Trump about Soleimani being a killer and a terrorist as well as his threats that the US has the biggest “weapons” in the world to the immediate denials of the Iranian government that they shot the plane and killed all passengers evade the fact that these are killings and those who lost their lives cannot be just understood as “collateral damage” or the unintended result of military operations. Such rhetoric’s are technologies of violence. They contribute to reducing the culpability of the military leadership in not tending to the non-combatant lives. 

MS: This proves that it’s not only about having weapons, but knowing how to use them…

A.M. A.: In some ways, I think it is not only about having the “weapons” or what Trump says the “missiles…[the] big [ones]” but also how the military leaders and others decide to use them.  However, this case as many others have proven to us is that when the weapons are available leaders and even civilians rush to them to redress their concerns, problems, or issues that they face. The existence of technologies of force and violence such as weapons of any kind is not enough to “kill” people.  What kills people are political choices. However, if the whole of society or the whole of our planet is militarized, that is it involves itself in investing resources and peoples with processes and practices ready for military conflict and violence, it makes it very difficult to use diplomacy, for instance, when wanting to redress problems and engage with conflict. Living in a planet that most societies are deeply inscribed with a garrison state mentality and hypermasculine rhetoric and language (i.e., President Trump stating that he “will never allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon” as if he is God) it is impossible to see our way and our power beyond guns and weapons.

Joana Leal/MS

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