Declaration on the disaster with Flight MH17

31 July 2014

We, members of the International Committee for Humanitarian Intervention (ICH), are saddened and appalled by the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine on July 17th this year, and the terrible events that followed.

We wish the relatives, close family and friends of the 298 victims all the strength they need in coping with this loss. Among the victims were 196 Dutch passengers, and that has hit the Netherlands particularly hard. The dignified handling by the Dutch people with the loss has gained admiration around the world.

MH17 was apparently shot down by a Russian-built rocket, from an anti-aircraft battery in the hands of pro-Russian rebels. If there is decisive evidence about this, then one must prosecute and try, and take economic sanctions and other punitive measures against, those directly and indirectly responsible for the downing of MH17. And if the Russian President Vladimir Putin is somehow responsible for this tragedy, he cannot remain unaffected. Then, for example, his personal assets abroad must be frozen as well.

The ICHI welcomes the plans and initiatives, in particular by the Dutch and Australian governments, to send an international police force to the disaster area as soon as possible. Forensic experts should be able to do their work freely and safely, in order to gather the last human remains on the crash site and bring these back to their loved ones (task 1), and to identify the cause of the disaster (task 2) so as to ultimately find, confront and preferably put on trial those responsible (task 3).

Preferably, a (new) UN Security Council Resolution must legitimize the international mission, accompanied by a ceasefire in the disaster area that all warring parties have to respect. But if the mission receives no UN mandate, then it should operate under the flag of the OSCE or any other appropriate organization – or if necessary by a coalition of the willing, led by the Netherlands and Australia with a strong mandate. A strong presence on the ground, in whatever form, is definitely needed in the longer term to determine the cause and possible culprits of the disaster.

Because it cannot be that the crash site remains unsecured and that bodies of victims remain unattended there. Some separatists or others should not get and hold the debris and belongings of the victims, and thus destroy the evidence. However, one must be appreciative of the efforts of local residents to store the bodies and collect the belongings. However amateurish it may be, that is still far better than letting the human remains lie there in heat, rain and other weather conditions for days or even weeks.

Given the risks of the armed conflict between the Ukrainian government and the separatists of the “People’s Republic of Donetsk” and the “People’s Republic of Luhansk”, the international police force should be armed as soon as possible for self-defense, protection of the forensic experts, and securing of the disaster area. Sending unarmed Military Police by the Netherlands is a good first step, but more measures should be undertaken.

The decision by the Dutch government not to send any armed mission to the disaster area, we regret for two reasons: first, to openly to shy away from it while previously openly suggesting the possibility of such a mission, gives a very weak signal Moscow, Kiev and Donetsk. Secondly, a relatively lightly armed mission (but with anti-tank weapons) for self-defense and protection of researchers on the site, should not in itself escalate matters – as long as such a presence does not advantage one a warring party to the detriment of the other. If we shrink from even such a mission, we let ourselves be blackmailed into powerlessness.

Be as it may, the international community, or at least a coalition of the willing, should set up an extraction force comprising of commandos and other special forces, so as to evacuate if necessary the police force and forensic team from the area – taking with them the remaining bodies and pieces of vital evidence.

Any manipulation, stalling, obstruction, threats, attacks or hostage-taking of forensic experts and members of the international police force – by separatists, Russian soldiers, officers and sympathizers from Russia, or by Ukrainian nationalists and other actors, by anyone – we should counter with additional sanctions and judicial proceedings, or military action.

Indeed, humanitarian intervention – in any form, with or without the consent of the UN Security Council, the local government and/or the warring parties – is not only meant to protect unarmed, defenseless people and save their lives. The plane crash with MH17 has ICHI made realize that humanitarian intervention could also be undertaken to identify and punish the perpetrators of such crimes – and above all to salvage the remains of killed innocent people in a dignified manner, and to bring them back home to their loved ones.

Caspar ten Dam, chairperson; conflict analyst

Bas Wallage, spokesperson; lawyer

Evert du Marchie van Voorthuysen, board member; physicist


Hans ten Dam, board member; management consultant