Families of Canadians killed in the downing of Flight PS752 say they are disappointed the minister of transport didn’t take a stronger stance against Iran — in light of recent and damning findings — when speaking to a UN agency on Monday.
Agnès Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, released the results of a six-month investigation last week, rejecting Iran’s official explanation for the deaths of 176 people in January 2020, when it shot down the commercial jetliner.
Callamard accused Iranian authorities of committing multiple violations of human rights and international law in the leadup and aftermath of the disaster.
New Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra told the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) 36-member council on Monday that Canada wanted transparency from Iran and would remain relentless in pursuit of answers.
“Iran owes these answers to the families, to Canada and all countries affected by this tragedy as well as the international community,” Alghabra said during the virtual meeting.
But Hamed Esmaeilion, spokesperson for the association representing victims’ families in Canada, expected Callamard’s report to act as a turning point for Ottawa to call on the ICAO’s council to publicly condemn Iran for the downing and handling of the case.
“We needed to see a strong reaction from the government,” said Esmaeilion who lost his nine-year-old daughter and wife on the plane.
“We are frustrated with words. We need to see action.”
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — an elite wing of the military — shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 over Tehran with two surface-to-air missiles on Jan. 8, 2020, killing everyone aboard, including 138 people with ties to Canada.
‘Failure to protect’
Esmaeilion’s association has gathered 18,000 signatures via a worldwide petition calling for ICAO’s member states to adopt a resolution to condemn Iran’s actions.
He points to Callamard’s letter which faults Iran for failing to close its airspace even though there was a possibility of a U.S. attack, saying this amounted to a “failure to protect” under international human rights law.
Callamard’s letter included reports Iran bulldozed the crash site within days, and that victims’ belongings were looted from the scene and burned.
Victims’ families in Canada claim they’ve been harassed and threatened for speaking up about the downing and blame Tehran, CBC News has reported. Despite international guidelines stating the plane’s flight data recorders should be analyzed without delay, it took more than six months for Iran to do so.
Esmaeilion says the families also want the ICAO’s council to respond as swiftly and strongly to Flight PS752 as it did to the case of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014. Roughly three months after that plane was shot down, Malaysia’s minister of transport addressed the ICAO’s council in solidarity with those victims’ families. The council unanimously adopted a resolution “condemning [the attack] in the strongest terms.”
Esmaeilion says families have been waiting 14 months for a similar gesture.
“It’s a symbolic act, but it’s better than nothing in our opinion,” said Esmaeilion. “A condemnation explains to the world what Iran has done.”
Ralph Goodale, the prime minister’s special adviser on Canada’s response to Flight PS752, says while the destruction of both jetliners was caused by military activity over or near a conflict zone, the cases differ and Iran’s admissions have made its case more complex.
WATCH | Iran should not be investigating Flight 752 crash: Goodale report
Russia never admitted responsibility for shooting down MH17, Goodale told CBC News. Whereas, after three days of denial, Iran said human error was to blame and that the IRGC mistook the jetliner for a hostile target in the aftermath of an American drone strike that killed a high-ranking Iranian military general in Iraq.
In the case of MH17, the plane came down in Ukraine, which quickly handed the investigative lead to the Netherlands “to avoid any conflict of interest,” said Goodale, whereas, Iran is conducting its own safety and criminal investigation “without safeguards to ensure independence, impartiality or transparency.”
“The world is waiting for their first technical report on safety issues and for the outcome for the judicial process which has been conducted entirely in secret,” said Goodale who also documented many of the same comments as Callamard in his own report published last year.
‘By no means satisfied’
Goodale added that Canada is by “no means satisfied with Iran’s management of the case or its conflated explanations to date.”
He said Canada is waiting for Iran’s final report into its safety investigation in the next month or so. Nothing is off the table in terms of pressing for “the full truth,” said Goodale.
He added Alghabra was “expressly critical of Iran” in his comments to ICAO today.
Alghabra noted Callamard’s letter briefly in his comments to ICAO’s council stating it “pointed out areas that would benefit from more robust international standards while raising important questions.” He also said Canada believes the international regime for aviation investigations should be strengthened to address the concerns Goodale laid out in his report.
WATCH | Iran broke international law after downing plane, expert says
“We have indicated repeatedly that we expect Iran to be transparent and provide answers to our many questions, questions that have been posed by Canada, by the families, and by others,” Alghabra said.
Alghabra also told the council about Canada’s Safer Skies Initiative and the recently established committee of global aviation experts to help improve aviation safety in or near conflict zones. Canada is working with the ICAO to find ways to prevent similar tragedies.
On background, the minister’s office said it remains concerned about a lack of clear information released by Iran and a failure to answer Canada’s questions and that it has consistently called for Iran to conduct a proper investigation in line with international standards.
Alghabra, who has met with victims’ families before, is scheduled to sit down with them again this week; their first meeting since he was appointed to the ministerial role on Jan. 12.