Three days after denying any involvement in the deadly Ukrainian jetliner crash near Iran‘s capital, Tehran, the country’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) admitted to shooting down the passenger plane.
Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh on Saturday blamed heightened tensions in the region following the United States‘s assassination of a top Iranian commander for the tragedy and said the passenger plane had been mistaken for a cruise missile. Hours before the plane crashed on January 8, the elite force had fired a volley of missiles at Iraq bases hosting US troops in retaliation for Qassem Soleimani’s assassination and Hajizadeh said his forces were in a state of preparation for “all-out-war”.
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The 176 people killed included 82 Iranians, 57 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians.
For many, the downing of the jet evoked grim memories of the US’s downing of an Iranian passenger plane on July 3 1988, towards the end of Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq.
At the time, a US Navy warship, which was engaged in a battle with Iranian forces in the Gulf, fired two missiles at flight IR655, which had just taken off from Bandar Abbas for Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. The attack killed all 290 people on board. Most of the victims were Iranians.
The US Navy called it a “tragic and regrettable” incident, saying its warship had misidentified IR655 as a fighter jet.
Ronald Reagan, the US President at the time, apologised to Iran for the downing of the plane, but Washington never admitted legal liability for the incident. Iran went on to sue the US in the International Court of Justice, but later dropped the suit after Washington agreed to pay $61.8 million to the victims’ families.
Many in Iran believe the US attack in 1988 had been deliberate and cite the tragedy as among the top incidents fuelling their distrust of Washington.
Just last week, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani noted the attack in a tweet criticising a threat by US President Donald Trump to destroy 52 Iranian cultural sites. “Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290. #IR655. Never threaten the Iranian nation,” he said.
In a markedly different tweet on Friday, Rouhani called Iran’s downing of the flight PS752 a “disastrous mistake”. Iran’s admission after three days of denial prompted protests in the country, and the leaders of Canada and Ukraine, while welcoming Iran’s admission of “full responsibility”, continued to call for justice.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Sunday called for “accountability, justice and closure”. Families of the victims want “answers” and must “be supported in any way deemed appropriate and desired by the families, including through restitution”, he said.
For his part, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that he wants a “full admission of guilt” from Iran.
“We expect from Iran assurances of their readiness for a full and open investigation, bringing those responsible to justice, the return of the bodies of the dead, the payment of compensation and official apologies through diplomatic channels,” he said.
So, what are the steps Iran can take to compensate families of the victims of the PS752 crash? Under international law, victims and the families of victims of human rights violations have three main rights: the right to truth, the right to justice and the right to reparation.
The first priority for Canada, according to Canadian legislator Sean Fraser, was to establish the facts of what happened. While Iran has allowed Ukrainian investigators access to the crash site, it is yet to do the same for Canada, with one factor being that the two countries do not have diplomatic ties.
“The focus right now is on ensuring that our investigators are able to take part in a full and independent investigation. Questions about the law and compensation will likely be addressed when we have a clearer picture of what specifically took place,” said Fraser.
Meanwhile, despite accepting responsibility for downing the Ukrainian jetliner, Iran has offered conflicting explanations for what happened. In its initial statement, the Iranian military said the passenger plane was mistaken for a hostile target after it flew close to a “sensitive military site”. But later, Hajizadeh said the plane made no mistake and was on its flight path.
Still, Iran has promised a credible investigation as well as justice, with Rouhani promising to “prosecute this great tragedy” and the General Staff of the Armed Forces promising to “hand over culprits … for prosecution”.
Many observers welcomed Iran’s admission as a positive step, and have called for reparations for victims.
“Iran has already admitted that its officials were responsible for this incident. That is an admission of fault. To be more specific, it is a manifest case of gross negligence,” said Payam Akhavan, professor of international law at McGill University in Montreal.
“Iran is under an obligation to compensate the victims. In international law the duty of reparations is owed to the Ukraine and Canada and other states whose nationals were killed,” he said.
Hassan Razaeifar, an official from the Iran Civil Aviation Organization, said on Sunday that such compensation would depend on a settlement between Tehran and the Kyiv.
“Normally the contractors pay reparation, but taking into consideration the fact that this crash was not normal, the two countries need to reach a settlement,” he said.
Kamran Matin, a senior lecturer at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, said Iran’s “embarrassment” over the mistake meant it was likely to make reparations. He added: “Shortly after the killing of Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian government allocated an additional 200 million euros to the Quds Force of the IRGC. So for the families of the victims there should be no question that Iran can afford to pay compensation.”
Human rights experts said reparation could also take a non-monetary form, including a formal apology, repatriation of remains of the dead, guarantees of non-repetition as well as diplomatic gestures such as restoration of ties between Iran and Canada.
The Canadian prime minister has vowed to work for justice.
At a sombre memorial for victims in Canada’s Edmonton on Sunday, Trudeau said: “We will not rest until there are answers. We will not rest until there is justice and accountability.”