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State responsibility and the downing of MH17

Two hundred and ninety-eight passengers aboard Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 were killed when Ukrainian rebels shot down the commercial airliner in July 2014. Because of the rebels’ close ties with the Russian Republic, the international community immediately condemned the Putin regime for this tragedy. Yet, while Russia is certainly deserving of moral and political blame, what is less clear is Russian responsibility under international law. The problem is that international law has often struggled assigning state responsibility when national borders are crossed and two (or more) sovereigns are involved. The essence of the problem is that under governing legal standards, a state could provide enormous levels of military, economic, and political support to another state or to a paramilitary group in another state – even with full knowledge that the recipient will thereby violate international human rights and humanitarian law standards — but will not share any responsibility for these international wrongs unless it can be established that the sending state exercised near total control over the recipient.

The leading caselaw in this area has been handed down by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) but what adds another layer of complexity to the present situation is that the Ukraine and Russia are both parties to the European Convention; it is possible that the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) might well provide a different answer.

To be clear, this article concerns itself only with determining Russian responsibility for the downing of MH17. Following this tragic event, approximately five thousand Russian troops took part in what now appears to have been a limited invasion of areas of the Ukraine. Thus, there are elements of both “indirect” and “direct” Russian involvement in the Ukraine, although only the former will be addressed. The larger point involves the legal uncertainty when states act outside their borders and in doing so contribute to the violation of international human rights standards.

International Court of Justice

The two leading cases regarding transnational or extraterritorial state responsibility have been handed down by the International Court of Justice. In Nicaragua v. United States (1986) Nicaragua brought an action against the United States based on two grounds. One related to “direct” actions carried out by US agents in Nicaragua, including the mining of the country’s harbors, and on this claim the Court ruled against the United States. The second claim was based on the “indirect” actions of the United States, namely, its support for the contra rebels who were trying to overthrow the ruling Sandinista regime. Nicaragua’s argument was that because of the very close ties between the United States and the contras, the former should bear at least some responsibility for the massive levels of human rights violations carried out by the latter.

The Court rejected this position employing an “effective control” standard, which in many ways is much closer to an absolute control test. Or to quote from the Court itself: “In light of the evidence and material available to it, the Court is not satisfied that all the operations launched by the contra force, at every stage of the conflict, reflected strategy and tactics wholly devised by the United States” (par. 106, emphases supplied).

Nearly a decade later, the International Court of Justice was faced with a similar scenario in the Genocide Case (Bosnia v. Serbia). The claim made by Bosnia was that because of the deep connections between the Serbian government and its Bosnian Serb allies, the former should have some responsibility for the acts of genocide carried out by the latter. Yet, as in Nicaragua, the ICJ ruled that Serbia had not exercised the requisite level of control over the Bosnian Serbs. Thus, the Court ruled that Serbia was not responsible for carrying out genocide itself, or for directing genocide, or even for “aiding and assisting” or “complicity” in the genocide that occurred following the overthrow of Srebrenica. However, in a part of its ruling that has received far too little attention, the Court did rule that Serbia had failed to “prevent” genocide when it could have exercised its “influence” to do so, and that it had also not met its Convention obligation to “punish” those involved in genocide due to its failure to fully cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

Perevalne, Ukraine - March 4, 2014: Russian soldier guarding an Ukrainian military base near Simferopol city. The Russian military forces invaded Ukrainian Crimea peninsula on February 28, 2014. © AndreyKrav via iStockphoto
Perevalne, Ukraine – March 4, 2014: Russian soldier guarding an Ukrainian military base near Simferopol city. The Russian military forces invaded Ukrainian Crimea peninsula on February 28, 2014. © AndreyKrav via iStockphoto

Turning back to the situation involving MH17, while no action has yet been filed with the International Court of Justice (and perhaps never will be filed), according to the Nicaragua-Bosnia line of cases any attempt to hold Russia responsible for the downing of MH17 would appear likely to fail for the simple reason that the relationship between the Russian state and its Ukrainian allies was nowhere near as strong as the relationship between the United States and the contras (Nicaragua) or that between the Serbian government and its Bosnian Serb allies (Genocide Case). The point is that if responsibility could not be established in these other cases it is by no means likely that it could be established in the present situation.

European Court of Human Rights

Because Russia and the Ukraine are both parties to the European Convention of Human Rights, what also needs to be considered is how the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) might address this issue if a case were brought either under the inter-state complaint mechanism, or (more likely) by means of an individual complaint filed by a family member killed in the crash.

Although the European Court of Human Rights has increasing dealt with cases with an extraterritorial element, in nearly every instance the claim has been based on European states carrying out “direct” actions in other states – whether it be NATO forces dropping bombs in Serbia and killing civilians on the ground (Bankovic), or Turkish officials arresting a suspected terrorist in Kenya (Ocalan), or British troops killing civilians in Iraq (Al-Skeini) – rather than instances where the Convention states have acted “indirectly.” The most pertinent ECtHR case is Ilascu v. Russia and Moldova where the applicants (Moldovan citizens) claimed they were arrested at their homes in Tiraspol by security personnel, some of whom were wearing the insignia of the former USSR. Unlike the ICJ’s “effective control” standard, the ECtHR ruled that Russia had exercised what it termed as “effective authority” or “decisive influence” over paramilitary forces in Moldova and because of this they bore responsibility for violations of the European Convention suffered by the applicants. Thus, on the basis of Ilascu, there is at least some possibility that due to the “effective authority” or the “decisive influence” that Russia appeared to exercise over its Ukrainian rebel allies, the ECtHR, unlike the ICJ, could assign responsibility to Russia for the downing of MH17.


Notwithstanding the immediate international condemnation of the Putin regime following the MH17 tragedy, international law seems to exist in a totally removed from international opinion and consensus. Under the caselaw of the International Court of Justice, Russia would appear not to be responsible for the downing of MH17 on the basis that it would be difficult to establish that the Russian government had exercised the requisite level of “effective control” over its Ukrainian rebel allies. On the other hand, if a case were brought before the European Court of Human Rights, there is at least some chance of establishing Russian responsibility on the basis of the Court’s previous ruling in Ilascu, although it should be said that this is not a particularly strong precedent.

The larger point is to ask why state responsibility is so difficult to establish when international borders are crossed and states act in another country, at least indirectly, as in the present situation. The key element ought to be the extent to which a state has acted in a way that leads to violations of international human rights and humanitarian law standards. Employing such a standard, it would be eminently clear – would it not? – that Russia would be at least partly responsible because of its strong relationship with Ukrainian rebels that were both armed (by Russia) and dangerous, and which had already shown a complete disregard for international law.

Recent Comments

  1. eaglewing

    If the authors of the downing of MH17 are so clearly established, why need we the so long and still under way work of the International Commission investigating on it? In your view of justice, it’s as you speak of the judges’ work without the need of the police investigations. A very strange vision indeed of justice, international or not. I would say a political, that is summary justice.

  2. William Taylor

    The article is predicated on the fact pro-Russian militants are alleged to have shot down the flight MH17. This has not yet be proved, and in fact very little forensic evidence has been released from the investigation into the downing of the aircraft. This interpretation has a political bias that skews the legal argument.

  3. Julian

    Give that several plants had already be shot down in Eastern Ukraine in previous days and previous weeks, what kind of irresponsible and I would suggest criminally negligent Air Traffic Authority would authorize civilian airliners to be flying through that area?

    Given I’m not familiar with who is responsible for the airspace in Eastern Ukraine, maybe you could help me. Is it the United Nations jurisdictional to control National airspace? Is it the European Union or some similar transnational European body? Is it Russia because they’re the nearest country? Is it Ukraine because it was actually in Ukrainian airspace at the time?

    Which is it? Surely whoever authorized civilian plane to fly through an area with known anti-aircraft capabilities must be ultimately responsible for their negligence? What happens if there is multiple engine failure when flying through that area and the plane is forced to descend to 3000m to fly ‘safely’????

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