UN experts probing destruction of Flight PS752 accuse Iran of breaking international law

Iranian authorities committed multiple violations of human rights and international law in the lead-up to and aftermath of the destruction of Ukranian International Airlines Flight PS752, according to the results of a damning investigation by two United Nations experts.

Shortly after taking off from a Tehran airport on Jan. 8, 2020, the plane was shot down by two surface-to-air missiles launched by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The attack killed all 176 passengers and crew members aboard, including 138 people with ties to Canada.

Agnès Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, released today the results of a six-month investigation into the event that call into question the findings of the official Iranian investigation.

Callamard concluded that Iran violated the “right to life” of those 176 people by resorting to lethal force and failing to take proper precautions while allowing military units to operate so closely to civilian aircraft — at a time when the country was experiencing heightened military tensions with the U.S.

Callamard also said the rights of many of the victims’ family members were violated when they were denied access to the crash site and subjected to harassment by Iranian authorities for speaking out.

“As a result of these systematic violations and failures by the Iranian authorities to meet their human rights obligations, 176 lives were lost and many more were harmed as a result of what happened after the strike,” said Callamard during a virtual press conference today.

“The families of the victims and, indeed, Iranian society … are left without the answers they deserve. They are left churning over and over again in their minds: how could this have happened?”

WATCH | UN official presses Iran for answers on downed Ukrainian flight

A report by UN special rapporteur Agnès Callamard says families who lost loved ones when Iran shot down Ukrainian International Airlines flight PS752 on Jan. 8, 2020, have not received the answers they deserve about why the plane was targeted. 0:38

Callamard faulted 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.

The Iranian military was on high alert at the time of the incident because of the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike five days earlier, and a subsequent retaliatory attack by Iran on U.S. bases in neighbouring Iraq.

Callamard said the apparent lack of co-ordination between civilian air authorities and Iranian military units — which had moved a number of anti-aircraft guns into the area near the airport — pointed to a deep failure of the chain of command in both.

Inconsistencies in Iranian investigation

An Iranian investigation found that the IRGC military personnel who launched the missiles mistook the civilian aircraft for an incoming U.S. missile.

But Callamard said the Iranian investigation did not meet international standards.

UN special rapporteur Agnès Callamard said the Iranian investigation into the downing of Flight PS752 didn’t meet international standards. (Reuters)

In December, she sent a letter to the Iranian government detailing her observations and posing questions about the missile strike. Iran has yet to respond to the letter, which was made public today.

Callamard’s letter describes a number of inconsistencies she said raise questions about the official account:

  • The Iranian investigation said a military commander launched both missiles at the plane without proper authorization. Callamard wrote that the investigation failed to explain why military personnel wouldn’t be informed that the plane was set to take off.

  • Iran alleged an error in the alignment of the mobile missile unit contributed to the mistaken targeting of the plane. Callamard said Iran hasn’t properly explained how the radar miscalibration occurred, how it led to the targeting of the aircraft, and why it wasn’t detected.

  • Callamard said Iran’s investigation didn’t explain why standard procedures for evaluating a potential target weren’t followed by IRGC military personnel — such as monitoring altitude, climb, descent rate or airspeed to evaluate the target’s size, or checking the target visually.

  • Callamard said Iran hasn’t properly explained why other planes took off without incident that night.

  • The IRGC Aerospace Force Commander has said the military unit had only 10 seconds to decide to whether to fire. Callamard said her investigation showed the unit had at least a 45 seconds to evaluate the target. 

Callamard said while she did not find any concrete evidence that the plane was shot down intentionally, the Iranian investigation had not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that it wasn’t targeted.

“The inconsistencies in the official explanation and the reckless nature of the mistakes have led many, including myself, to question whether the downing of Flight PS752 was intentional,” she said.

“The information released thus far makes it impossible to answer many basic questions and clarify conjectures. Without answers, suspicion that civilians were intentionally targeted will remain.”

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