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Attack on PS752: Iran violated multiple human rights obligations - UN experts

23 February 2021

GENEVA (23 February 2021) – Iran committed multiple human rights violations in shooting down Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 and in the aftermath of the deadly attack, two UN experts said today.*

"The inconsistencies in the official explanations seem designed to create a maximum of confusion and a minimum of clarity. They seem contrived to mislead and bewilder," Agnes Callamard, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said in a 45-page official letter to Iran that was published today.

"As for the mistakes that have been admitted, they suggest at minimum a reckless disregard for standard procedures and for the principles of precaution, which should have been implemented to the fullest given the circumstances and the location of the missile unit in the proximity of a civilian airfield."

On 8 January 2020, an Iran Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) air defence TOR unit fired two missiles at the Ukrainian plane en route from Tehran to Kiev, killing all those on board. The strike took place in the context of heightened tensions following the United States' targeted killing of Iran's General Soleimani a few days earlier in Iraq and Iran's subsequent retaliations on US bases in that country.§

"Following a six months-long inquiry into the killing of the 176 persons on board the flight, in December 2020 I sent to the Iranian Government detailed observations and questions about the circumstances of the strike. I have yet to receive a response," Callamard said. The letter remained confidential for 60 days in accordance with Human Rights Council policy for such communications to States.

The letter highlights multiple violations of international law by the Iranian authorities, most crucially violations of the right to life of the 176 passengers and crew.

"In situations of high military tension, the most effective means to prevent attacks on civil aviation is to close the airspace," she said. "Had Iran, knowing full well that hostilities with the US could readily escalate, closed its airspace for civilian traffic that evening, 176 human beings would not have been killed."

According to the Iranian investigation, flight PS752 was intentionally but mistakenly targeted by IRGC military personnel, who mistook the civilian aircraft for an incoming US missile that posed an imminent threat.

"The explanations provided by the Iranian authorities as to how the IRGC TOR Unit struck the civilian flight present many inconsistencies," she said." Simply put, they do not add up."

Callamard's letter detailed a large number of contradictions with Iran's explanations, including:

  • Iran alleges that an error in the alignment of the mobile missile unit contributed to the mistaken targeting, but it has not provided any explanation as to why this radar miscalibration occurred, why it had not been detected, and how it led to the targeting.
  • Iran did not explain why the IRGC failed to follow the most basic standard procedures, such as monitoring altitude, climb or descent rate and airspeed to evaluate unknown radar tracks, evaluating the target's size, or checking the target visually.
  • Even without an Identification Friend or Foe system in the unit itself, failsafe measures should have been instituted to ensure that transponder or other tracking data was accurately and promptly provided to the mobile missile system crew. Iran failed to explain how information about cleared civilian flights was communicated to IRGC units, a critical step to ensure the safety of civilian aircraft and one that clearly failed.
  • Contrary to the IRGC Aerospace Force Commander allegation that the unit had only 10 seconds to decide to fire, it would appear that the unit had at least a 45-second decision window and possibly more time to evaluate the target.
  • No information is provided on why other flights that took off that night, before PS752, were not targeted.

Those failures were further compounded by the Iranian Government's refusal, over three days, to admit that the plane had been shot down by its military, even though high placed authorities knew almost immediately what had occurred.

"Instead of opening a proper investigation, the authorities allowed the crash site to be looted and then bulldozed, hampering the collection of evidence and depriving families of irreplaceable mementoes of those whom they had lost," Callamard said. "The investigation by the Iranian authorities also disregarded the responsibility of high-level officials.

"The Iranian Government claims it has nothing to hide, yet it has failed to carry out a full and transparent investigation in line with its international obligations. As a result, many questions are left unresolved.

"Absent an impartial, independent and comprehensive investigation, the families of the victims are left without the answers they deserve; left churning over and over in their minds how could this have happened; why was it that this particular flight was targeted while other flights on the same route in the same period escaped attack. Some may even wonder if that particular flight was targeted deliberately.

"Moreover, the Iranian Government has failed to meet its obligations of respect for the remains of the deceased, including by its disrespectful handling of the crash site, its efforts to obstruct family wishes to repatriate remains; by its interference with private burials. All this is compounded by entirely unacceptable harassment and threats against some family members."

Independent experts appointed by the Human Rights Council also wrote to the Iranian authorities in February 2020 raising their concerns about Iran's response to protests against the attack, which were met by excessive use of force and arbitrary detention. Javaid Rehman, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, raised the issue in his report to the General Assembly in October 2020. He also raised his concerns regarding harassment, including death threats, of the families seeking justice for the victims of Flight PS752 in his latest report to the Human Rights Council.

Callamard previously issued a statement detailing a range of recommendations to the international community to strengthen the safety of civilian aircraft in conflict zones.


An unofficial Farsi translation of Callamard's letter is available here.

§ The Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions has previously analysed the targeted killing of General Soleimani

*The experts: 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.

Mr. Javaid Rehman was appointed as Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran by the UN Human Rights Council in July 2018. He is a Professor of International Human Rights Law and Muslim Constitutionalism at Brunel University, London. Mr Rehman teaches human rights law and Islamic law and continues to publish extensively in the subjects of international human rights law, Islamic law and constitutional practices of Muslim majority States.

The Special Rapporteurs, Independent Experts and Working Groups 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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