Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine finally agreed Monday to surrender the flight recorder boxes of downed Malaysian Flight 17 and allowed the victims to be evacuated in four refrigerated rail cars to Kharkiv, outside the rebel-held area, from where they would be flown to Amsterdam. They also permitted Dutch forensics experts to search amid the ruins — although the crash site has likely been compromised over the last several days.
This turnabout is a welcome — albeit overdue — development. Since the airliner, carrying 298 innocent people, was shot out of the sky last Thursday on its way to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam, pro-Russia separatists have compounded the tragedy by refusing to cooperate with international authorities in handling the wreckage.
An urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council was set for Monday evening to demand access to the site of the crash. The Council was to convene on a resolution that would condemn the murderous act, demand that the perpetrators be held accountable and that armed groups don’t compromise the crash site’s integrity.
“Site integrity” hardly describes the early reality on the ground. The only integrity at the crash site was the solemn, accusing silence of the dead. Even in death, their dignity was compromised, as their bodies were moved around and were allowed to decompose in the fields while the bereaved families awaited confirmation of death and return of the remnants of their loved ones for burial.
A team of 133 investigators from Malaysia was allowed access to only a small portion of the site, kept out by armed men who appear to have a lot to hide.
It is not known with any certainty who is responsible for the tragedy. Russia and Ukraine are both claiming innocence. However, a U.S. intelligence assessment suggests that pro-Russia separatists used a sophisticated SA-11 surface-to-air missile to destroy the Boeing 777. The missile, known as a Buk, was first built by the Soviet Union and is capable of shooting down jets traveling at altitudes of up to 70,000 feet. U.S. officials doubt that the rebels could have successfully deployed it without Russian help.
Deliberations were complicated by wrangling over textual issues. The Russians, who hold veto power in the 15-member Security Council, had been angling for obfuscation, reportedly getting co-sponsors Australia, France and Lithuania to change “shooting down” to “downing” of the plane.
Among the aggrieved parties, the Netherlands and Australia — which lost 189 and 37 citizens respectively on the flight — are furious with indignation. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans flew to the United Nations in New York to be present for the vote on the resolution.
It is the kind of indignation that shows clearly through the diplomatic language.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Russian President Vladimir Putin “said all the right things” during their telephone conversation about ensuring an international investigation into the disaster. “I’m now going to try to ensure that, as far as Australia humanly can, we insist upon these things happening,” Abbott told Sydney Radio 2GB on Monday.
“Australia has a lot at stake here,” Foreign Minister Bishop said.
But it’s not only Australia that has a lot at stake here. Russia has a lot at stake here, too.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, it has made an impressive comeback from political and economic chaos. But Vladimir Putin’s pretensions to replacing communist tyranny with democratic institutions has all too often taken second place to personal and imperialist ambitions.
Putin’s aspirations for a restoration of the glory of Russia cannot be realized through a restoration of its might and a recrudescence of cynical diplomatic maneuvering. The prestige he seeks for Russia will not be attained if the simplest, most elemental demands of humane and decent behavior are obstructed by it at the U.N. Security Council.
As for that amorphous entity that likes to call itself the “international community” — it has a lot at stake, too. What kind of community can allow such a heinous act to go unpunished? What kind of community would allow the desecration of the dead and the brazen flouting of legitimate authorities which seek to investigate and retrieve what’s left of the bodies?
Much depends on the freedom of people to travel in safety across international boundaries. It is not enough for the so-called international community — those who purport to represent a civilized world — to recover the bodies and the recorders. It must also uncover the truth about what happened.