OTTAWA — Canada’s special adviser on the federal response to Iran’s January shootdown of a Ukraine International Airlines jetliner says changes are needed in international aviation rules to allow for “more credible” crash investigations.
In a lengthy report released Tuesday, former Liberal cabinet minister Ralph Goodale also recommends that special attention be paid to those who lose loved ones in such tragedies.
Goodale was appointed by the government following the Jan. 8 crash of the passenger jet after it was shot down by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. All 176 people aboard were killed, including dozens of Canadians.
The exact cause of the missile strike has not been established, and Canada has lambasted Iran for its months-long delay in releasing the Boeing airliner’s flight recorders.
Tehran leads the investigation due to international aviation rules. Goodale’s report says that needs to change.
Goodale said it is time to end the current practice of assigning the lead investigative responsibilities to the country where a tragedy occurred, especially in cases when its own military is responsible for the disaster, in this case Iran.
“If you’re investigating an engine fire or bad weather or pilot error, or you flew into a flock of ducks, as the aircraft is taking off, or whatever, the rules, as presently laid out, work pretty well to deal with those kinds of issues,” Goodale said in an interview.
But in the case of a military shootdown “that just begs questions of impartiality, transparency, credibility. The integrity of the whole process gets called into question.”
He said the international rules need to be changed to make it an “obligation” and not optional for a country such as Iran to designate another country to take the lead on an air crash investigation.
That was the case in 2014 when Ukraine asked the Netherlands to lead the investigation that eventually blamed a Russian-made missile for shooting down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over its eastern region.
“And now, five-and-a-half years later, another incident where it’s the military that brought down the aircraft. Some countries are not behaving in a responsible way when it comes to managing their airspace in and around conflict zones,” Goodale said.
“All of the countries that operate airlines in the world, they have a vested interest in having safe air spaces,” Goodale said, otherwise the international system’s ability to prevent future disasters would be impaired.
Those killed in January included 55 Canadian citizens and 30 Canadian permanent residents, and many others with ties to Canadian universities as well as nationals of Britain, Ukraine, Afghanistan and Sweden.
A large part of Goodale’s mandate was to reach out to the families and loved ones of those who died in the crash after some initial complaints that the government wasn’t taking their concerns seriously enough.
Goodale’s recommendations call for robust, early engagement with families to give them timely information, including a password-protected web portal as part of an effort to combat fear, uncertainty and misinformation.
Hamed Esmaeilion, a Toronto-area dentist whose wife and nine-year-old daughter were killed on the flight, said it was “a precise, good report” that asked all the right questions required of Iran. But he said the time had come for Canada and its partner countries to take strong action against an “inhumane” regime that must pay for killing innocent people.
Esmaeilion said the government acted “swiftly and humanely” to help grieving families, but nothing it does will ever be able to alleviative their suffering.
“Their flight took three minutes and 42 seconds,” said Esmaeilion. “And the family members, they still have nightmares, they go for four treatments, for therapy, for things like that. But as far as I know, for all of them, it hasn’t worked.”
Goodale was appointed on March 31 by the government and held his first meetings with survivors in mid-April.
“The pain and the anguish and the anger were very, very tangible. It was just gut-wrenching,” he said.
“There is nothing inevitable about what happened there. This could have been avoided and should have been avoided. And unless we get answers and action based on those answers, it will happen again.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the report highlights the importance of paying close attention to the needs of the families of victims of air tragedies.
“Relentless pursuit of the truth about what happened is absolutely vital,” Trudeau said in a statement.
He said Goodale’s report “has posed vital questions that Iran should answer comprehensively, with supporting evidence, to demonstrate the credibility of its investigations, and to convince the international civil aviation community that Iran can provide a safe airspace.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 15, 2020.
Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press