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UN expert calls for “clear, unambiguous standards” to protect aircraft over conflict zones

07 January 2021

Iran missile strike against Ukraine airliner

8 January 2020

GENEVA (7 January 2021) – On the occasion of the first-year anniversary of the strike against Ukraine International Airlines (UIA) Flight PS752, which killed all 176 persons on board, a UN human rights expert has called for urgent measures to protect civilian aircraft flying in conflict zones or areas of high military tensions.

“The downing of Flight PS752 sadly highlights the insufficiencies of the international conventions related to air safety, both in preventing military actions against civilian planes, and in ensuring proper investigations should they occur,” said Agnès Callamard, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

On 8 January 2020, 176 individuals lost their lives when their Ukraine International Airlines flight from Tehran to Kiev was struck by two Iranian missiles. The targeting of the Flight PS752 occurred in the context of heightened tensions between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States. 

“This preventable tragedy requires urgent action from all stakeholders including States and airlines,” she said in a statement presenting a range of recommendations to strengthen the protection of the right to life of passengers on board civilian airlines.

Callamard said that in situations of military tensions, whether or not they are recognised as armed conflicts, the most effective means to prevent attacks on civil aviation is closing the airspace. All other options are secondary and may subject civil aircraft to risk. Yet, too often, States fail to do so for commercial or political reasons, she said.

“The international community must establish clear, explicit and unambiguous standards on when States should close airspace under their jurisdiction,” Callamard said. “If States are not acting responsibly to close the airspace under their jurisdiction, or restrict flights, then it is incumbent upon other States and airlines to take immediate action to restrict carriers from flying over or near a conflict zone.”

The expert also called on airlines to make their flight paths available to the public and to strengthen their capacity for risk assessment, including by following the highest standards and checking all information sources when planning flights routes.

“The many failings of the existing international system and institutions demonstrates the urgent need for a completely independent body (from both States and airlines) to monitor air safety in relation to conflicts, and to compile and disseminate information about risks to civil aviation related to flying over conflict zones,” Callamard said. “Such information should be made available to the public at large.

“Passengers and flight crew cannot be left at the mercy of States and airlines who put revenue and other motives ahead of safety. In a world of heightened military and political tensions, with a resurgence of conflicts and access to a multiplication of military grade weapons, the current international system responsible for civilian air safety is not fit for purpose. We must act now to prevent future incidents and save lives.”

The Special Rapporteur has written to the Iranian Government regarding the shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752.


*Ms Agnès Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions has a distinguished career in human rights and humanitarian work globally. Ms Callamard is the Director of Columbia Global Freedom of Expression at Columbia University and has previously worked with Article 19 and Amnesty International. She has advised multilateral organizations and governments around the world, has led human rights investigations in more than 30 countries, and has published extensively on human rights and related fields.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

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