Conventional Weapons Proliferation and the Downing of Flight 17

The world is shocked and horrified by the destruction of a civilian aircraft with 300 people on board over eastern Ukraine, apparently caused by a surface to air missile launched by pro-Russian separatists. Information is obviously still coming in, but it certainly does appear that a sophisticated Russian-made and Russian-supplied missile system was used. This raises the question, still to be determined, of exactly what link exists between the Russian military and the firing of the missile that brought down the aircraft.

In a CNN article today a “senior U.S. official” is quoted as saying:

[T]he responsibility is Russia’s whether they had Russian personnel there or they gave them equipment and an instruction manual.

These separatist leaders are taking orders from Russia and (Russian President Vladimir Putin) has to realize the consequence of sending heavy and sophisticated weapons to a gang of sociopaths, extremists, violent thugs, nationalists and agents who are just given weapons and told to make chaos.

That sounds about right to me. And it has echoes in other cases of sophisticated conventional weapons being supplied to poorly trained, questionably responsible fighters in other situations as well.  Immediately to mind came, among other cases, the US supply of weapons to the Mujahideen (later to become the Taliban) in Afghanistan in the 1980’s, and the much more recent US supply of conventional arms to the Iraqi army, many of which were left on the battlefields of northern Iraq when the soldiers disrobed themselves and fled, and were picked up by the advancing ISIS fighters, who are now using them to wreak havoc in Syria.

Perhaps all cautionary tales about irresponsible proliferation of conventional weapons.


11 Comments on “Conventional Weapons Proliferation and the Downing of Flight 17”

  1. etienne marais says:

    Not to mention clandestine supplies to the “good” rebels in Syria. How is that different. Pot, Kettle.

  2. Don Bacon says:

    Right, Dan, and the Syria Sarin attack sounded about right to you too. But it wasn’t.

  3. The shooting down of Malaysian Airliner 17, was a unique event in the history of violence. Never before has a militarized group – not a State – shot a civilian airplane out of the sky. A line has been crossed that augers horror for the entire world. In this unique and critical context, it is imperative to consider the question of legal responsibility and to ensure that everyone responsible is held to account both criminally and civilly.
    Initially, there is a question of jurisdiction. Ukraine has the first option to prosecute but various other nations could assert a right to prosecute, and there could be a role for the International Criminal Court. There is also the question of who may be held responsible. Obviously, someone launched the missile, and that person(s) should be prosecuted for mass murder. Yet equally as obvious, the launcher did not operate alone or without the support of an organized group; legal accountability must reach up through the responsible criminal enterprise.
    Most important of all is the question of missile supplier responsibility. The weapon that blasted Malaysian airliner 17 came from somewhere, most likely near where it was used, most likely from a State. The question of who had legal responsibility for the weapon has significant legal implications because the weapons supplier may bear criminal responsibility under various nation’s criminal laws, bear State responsibility under international law, and bear civil responsibility under many nations’ tort laws.
    There needs to be careful analysis of whether the weapons supplier violated: (1) United Nations Security Resolution 1540; (2) The Missile Technology Control Regime; or (3) International or European Union controls on weapons trafficking. There needs to be further careful analysis of the legal implications of whatever violations may have occurred, including a reasoned determination of what legal actions should proceed against culpable parties.
    I would urge consideration be given to how best to advance the matters in the above paragraphs, whether working with national and international agencies, engaging appropriate legal communities, scholarship, public outreach, or otherwise. An effectively designed program might sharpen legal analysis in service to everyone affected by this event, i.e., the entire world.
    –Professor Barry Kellman

  4. masoud says:

    It’s funny how people can live on the same planet but at the same time exist completely separate realities.
    There are a lot of self-described liberals out there that lament the invasion of Iraq, and openly will passionately go on about how tragic it was that George Bush fell for Sadam’s open bluff that he had Nuclear Weapons.
    Others will recall with a heavy heart Iran flight 655 and its destruction by the USS Vincennes. If only that plane hadn’t been behaving so strangely, seeming to dive instead of climb(to the Vincennes only, that is), not responding to hails on military frequencies, and in general being where no one would expect it to be, at a time that no one was expecting, either.
    Still others will decry Kofi Anan’s corruption in Administering the oil-for-food which they hold responsible for the deaths of 500000 Iraqi children.
    Many sober analysts have no issues to simultaneously giving approving nods to both Obama’s ‘outstretched hand’ diplomacy and his ‘ tough sanctions’ policy, which they thoughtfully note has finally brought Iran to the negotiations table, in order to discuss their nuclear weapons program.
    Many a liberal will enthusiastically explain to you the devious cleverness Asad showed in launching sarin attacks against the freedom fighting ISIS and al-Nusrah in the outha suburbs of damascus just as ta UN weapons inspections team was landing in the Damascus airport. They will go at length about how it makes sense that the rockets used in the attack were from a model long since decommissioned by the Syrian military and how it’s absolutely plausible that the Syrian Arab Army launched the 2 km range rockets from 9 km away. Just don’t bring up all the other chemical attacks, both before and after Goutha, that were briefly given play in western media before it was realized that they were obvious frauds. Don’t bring up those videos published by Al-Qadaih featuring really frighting chemistry experiments and extremely unlucky stray dogs, or the often stated aims of the ‘rebels’ to develop chemical arms or their repeated attempts to attack and raid the Syrian governments precursor stockpile, even as it was in the process of shipping out of the country.
    I wouldn’t be at all surprised o learn that such people don’t view the current crisis in Ukraine to be the result of neo nazia and eight wing mobs storming the government buildings, house of parliament, presidential palaces and duly and democratically elected president, and deposing him for the crime of not signing a trade agreement with the haste they demand and instead installing a parliament which as it’s first act voted to eliminate Russian’s constitionaly mandated role as an official language, and forming a govenemnt where many high level cabinet positions have gone to admirers of Stephan Bandera, who’s main claim to fame is the he collaborated with Adolph Hitler. A lot of these people will instead offer Putin as some kind of unsatiable , irrational, unmanageable and unknowable throw back to the Cold War era, who’s unprecedented meddling in a country far removed and of no consequence to him is purposefully creating insecurity as a cynical ploy to enhance Russia’s own security posture.

    • Cyrus says:

      Iran was not “brought to the table” by these policies — Iran had been repeatedly at the table, and the US was absent.

  5. Johnboy says:

    Not to point fingers, but it should be mentioned that the UKRANIAN military also fields exactly the same surface to air missile system…….

    • Dan Joyner says:

      That is absolutely right, Johnboy. I think it is a very live question where the missile system came from, as well as who fired it, and what links there are to the various actors in the conflict.

      • Johnboy says:

        Sure, but I’ll point out – again – that in the quote that you provide there are only two groups who are fingered as possessing this weaponry:
        a) Russia, and
        b) “a gang of sociopaths, extremists, violent thugs, nationalists and agents who are just given weapons and told to make chaos”

        No mention is made of a third group, namely,
        c) “a gang of sociopaths, extremists, violent thugs, nationalists and agents” who seized power in a coup, the coup leaders who were then Very Promptly Recognized by the USA and the EU.

        Those dudes not only also possess this missile system, they also possess all the targeting radars and command and control systems to point those missiles at high flying targets.

        Which is something that I very much doubt that the pro-Russian separatists possess.

        The Ukranians also (and this appears not to be mentioned by anyone) had that Malaysian civilian aircraft under direct air traffic control, which normally would be unremarkable except that this plane was – rather remarkably – directed 200 miles off its normal course.

        Odd. Very odd indeed.

        Maybe the separatists did shoot that plane down, which would be a very lucky shot indeed.
        Or maybe the Ukrainian military shot that plane down.

        Maybe. But I find it odd that nobody in the western mainstream media is even considering that possibility.

  6. Veronica Long Yin Lee says:

    I think this is an interesting article – It argues the Flight 17 incident is a “wake-up call” for countries to ratify the Arms Trade Treaty. When this article was written, only 41 nations out of the required 50 ratified. As of now, however, 54 countries have ratified and the treaty is to be entered into force on 24 December 2014.

    This article says that Russia is “under strong suspicion of having supplied the trained operators who shot down the Malaysia Airlines Flight” and “that if Russia had kept its weapons on its side of the border, flight MH17’s 298 innocents would have died. An obvious response is to ratify the Arms Trade Treaty immediately.”

    However, Russia is not a signatory of the ATT and neither is Ukraine at that time (Ukraine signed 23 September 2014). Even if the ATT was in force, it is unlikely to have prevented this tragedy.

    • bkellman says:

      Thank you Veronica for alerting to this essay. I agree that the Arms Trade Treaty’s widespread adherence would be a step in the right direction in terms of clarifying essential norms and encouraging legal measures of accountability. And I certainly agree that the biggest suppliers of weapons are the world’s powerful states. I would only offer that surface anti-aircraft missiles (SAMs) might be a special problem that demands more focused attention than may be realizable under the ATT.

      SAMs are among the most potentially destructive and widely dispersed weapons in existence that are not subject to some type of international legal oversight. SAMs used against civilian airliners would have crippling implications for the world’s transportation networks. As aviation has long been a prime target for violence, but as airport security has denied easy emplacement of internal threats (hijackers, bombs), it only makes sense to focus on planes’ vulnerability to external attack.

      One step in the right direction would be to extend the coverage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540 which prohibits transfers of certain weapons from state to non-state actors. UNSCR 1540 does not currently apply to SAMs but to missiles used for delivery of NCB weapons. For it to apply, the Security Council would have to take further action, perhaps the MH 17 explosion could inspire them. More promising might be direct action by the U.N. General Assembly, perhaps by empowering a subsidiary organizations to implement measures for controlling SAMs. Using the CTBTO as a guide, the UNGA could authorize such an organization’s operations even without a treaty’s ratification by principal states or even its entry into force.

      In any event, there are too many SAMs out there, too readily distributed to unstable state actors and too readily trafficked to non-state belligerents. SAMs are the weapons of mass destruction of asymmetric warfare. Attention should be paid.

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