#MH17 and the laws of war

Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down in Ukrainian airspace, between Donetsk and Luhansk, on July 17. All 300 passengers and crew members were lost.

MH17 turmapaikka.
The MH17 crash site.

Firstly, I offer my condolences to all those bereft in this horrible tragedy. As a soldier I feel great pain in that such are the grim aspects of my profession. It would be hypocritical to assert that this doesn’t apply to Finland. If we were to defend our country in a future war, risks such as these would be likely to appear.

Therefore, I find it necessary to examine this in the context of the laws of war (jus in bello). Arto Pulkki, a military expert for the magazine Suomen Sotilas, wrote a very good piece on the case of flight MH17 titled Responsibility and Irresponsibility, considering intention and liability from a criminal law perspective. I warmly recommend this as a primer.

First I shall consider intention, as it is easier to approach the subjects of guilt or fault using legal principles. A word of warning, though, I must say that I don’t speak proper legalese, especially in English, so read carefully with caution. Nonetheless, mens rea needs to be considered in order to find out which principles of the laws of war are applicable.

Intention as opposed to negligence or carelesness is easily established in this case; if the firing button was pressed with the express purpose of launcing the missile, negligence or carelessness is ruled out. A negligent or careless act would require that, for example, an external event — say an explosion nearby – startled the ”missile operator” or rocked the vehicle causing the operator to inadverently press the launch button.

The issue left is to assess the level of intention. Assuming that there was no intent to down a civilian flight, then the degree of culpability of the operator is low. An obvious and possible outcome of firing a missile is for it to hit civilian aircraft or for the missile to stray and cause damage to civilians.

To assess the culpability of the superiors and other actors we will need to look at the principles governing the use of force in war. Only one principle striclty applies to this case. When considering the prerequisite of targeting, distinction, the case is clear – military force was used on a civilian target. The debate on admissibility ends here; other principles discussed in the case of MH17, such as proportionality and necessity, don’t even come into play.

The principle of distinction catergorically rules out any use of military force against civilian airlines, exempt 9-11 cases. Cases where civilian property can be targeted (as military targets) are usually restricted to infrastructure that contributes to enemy war efforts. Such civilian property then becomes a military target by rules of distinction. In such cases the principles necessity and proportionality need to be addressed: Does striking the military target help in the military defeat of the enemy? AND is the collateral damage caused to civilians or civilian property excessive in relation to the military advantage of on attack?

A good example of applying these principles — and the problems and dilemmas that arise — is the decision taken by NATO forces to target the Lužane bridge in Serbia during operation Allied Force (Kosovo, 1999). During that strike a bus was on the bridge resulting in the loss of life of 23-70 civilians.

Kuva: http://www.srpska-mreza.com.

The only case where proportionality doesn’t apply are military engagements in areas where no danger to civilian life or property exists. To destroy an enemy combatant with small arms fire is equally proportional to an air strike; destroying an enemy hardpoint with a hand grenade is equally proportional to a cruise missile barrage.

The underlying requirement in applying these principles is the call for precautions. The principles don’t suddenly become valid only in the moment of an attack or decision to attack. Or post-attack as in some cases… The requirement of protecting civilian life and property comes with a specific call for precautions in both planning and executing the use of force. The belligerents (Parties) must be able, to at all times and in all circumstances distinguish between civilians, civilian property, and military targets. Force may only be used on military targets. In practice this means that standards and mechanisms for identifying targets, assessing damage pre-strike, and choosing systems of engagement must be put in place, be upheld and controlled by responsible commanders.

Thus, in order to assess the culpability of the operator launching the missile and his superiors, the relevant questions are:

  • Did the operator take care to properly identify the target, i.e. did he positively identify the target as military?
  • Did the operator act in accordance with the Rules of Engagement (ROE) and the identification criteria set therein?
  • Was the identification criteria such that by using them a reliable identification would be acquired? (identification by two or more systems, e.g. radar AND visual, or a positive challenge-and-reply identification)
  • Did the higher command (superiors) make sure that no civilian aircraft were in the dangerous zone, for example by maintaining and distributing a recognized air picture?
  • If it was known that civilian air traffic was in the zone, were decisions taken to limit or cease the use of air defence forces?
  • Or was a deliberate decision taken to continue the use of force, disregarding the risks to civilian air traffic?

State actor culpability is harder to address, but asking: ”Did Russia equip the rebels with powerful and dangerous long range weapons systems such as the BUK surface-to-air missile and the Grad rocket launchers without providing for the required situational awareness systems, thus creating a considerable risk of indiscriminate and non-distinctive use of force?” helps. Such a question may help assess the culpability of Russia as a State actor.

Assuming that the rebels’ possession of BUK-systems was known to Ukrainian authorities, the Ukrainian culpability can be easily assessed as an airspace control issue, asking: ”Did the State take prompt and responsible action to control and regulate the use of its airspace in order to remove the danger to civilian air traffic — knowing in advance either that the rebels were in possession of SAMs with ranges in excess of 5 km, as demonstrated by the downing of a AN-26 cargo plane on Wednesday, or knowing that the SAMs had been captured from the Ukrainian armed forces in the end of June?

But State responsibility is a whole new subject, best left for another post.


7 reaktioner på ”#MH17 and the laws of war

  1. Dear Tinhead!

    Thank you for your question. As I only broached the subject from a jus in bello point of view, I find it a bit off-topic to provide answers on technical details.

    Regarding tech, you should look at Corporal Frisk’s recent post titled ”The BUK and #MH17.” As this post very much deals with the technological aspects of the BUK system, in addition to providing open source intelligence on the dispositions of BUK launchers, I took the liberty of posting your question on Corporal Frisk’s blog and notified him of it in norder to get an expert answer on your excellent question.

    Kind regards,



  2. […] All in all, there seems to be enough evidence to indicate the existence of a single 9A310M1 Buk-M1 TELAR in the area of the crash site of MH17. If the TELAR operated independently, target acquisition would have been somewhat problematic. As said, the system has a limited capability in this field. However, using the radar requires fuel for the gas turbine as well as emitting radiation which can be picked up by Ukrainian ELINT-planes. Another possibility is that the target was first picked up visually by a spotter (in the crudest version by a crew member standing outside the TELAR), who relayed an approximate position to the operators. These then proceeded to shoot down the plane, most probably believing it was a military transport. On the juridical part of this, see James Mashiri’s detailed analysis. […]


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