Canada is publicly acknowledging for the first time that families, including Canadians, who lost loved ones when Iran shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet in 2020, have asked the International Criminal Court to take action.
The Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims announced last September that it had made a legal submission to the ICC prosecutor’s office to expand an investigation of alleged war crimes in Ukraine to include the Iranian missile strike that downed the Ukraine International Airlines plane. The incident happened as the jet took off from Tehran on January 8, 2020.
The strike killed all 176 people on board, most of them Iranians and Iranian Canadians who were flying to Canada via Kyiv. Iran says its forces mistook the plane for an incoming U.S. missile.
The prosecutor’s office at The Hague-based ICC has made no public statement about whether it has opened or intends to open a preliminary examination of the association’s nearly 12-month-old request. The ICC is a permanent international court governed by a treaty called the Rome Statute that investigates and tries individuals accused of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression.
Under ICC rules, when considering taking up a case, the prosecutor’s office must determine whether there is sufficient evidence of a crime of sufficient gravity falling within the ICC’s jurisdiction, whether that crime is subject to genuine national legal proceedings, and whether opening an ICC investigation would serve the interests of justice and the victims.
“If the requirements are not met for initiating an investigation, or if the situation or crimes are not under the ICC’s jurisdiction, the ICC’s prosecution cannot investigate,” the court’s website says.
In a message sent to VOA on July 29, Canada’s high commissioner in Britain, Ralph Goodale, offered the first public comment by a Canadian official on the families’ request.
Goodale was appointed in March 2020 as a special adviser to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Ottawa’s response to Iran’s downing of Flight PS752. Goodale told VOA that he has continued his advisory role since assuming the ambassadorial post in London in 2021.
“The ICC process is an option that was open to the families to request. They have done so. It is now a matter for the independent ICC Prosecutor to examine and determine,” Goodale wrote.
In an interview for the July 19 edition of VOA’s Flashpoint Iran podcast, the association’s Canada-based spokesman, Kourosh Doustshenas, expressed disappointment that neither Ottawa nor any other government has publicly supported the group’s ICC request.
ICC rules allow its prosecutor’s office to start an investigation on its own initiative or upon request from any of the 123 states that are parties to the Rome Statute. Those states include Canada, Britain and Sweden, three nations that lost citizens in the downing of Flight PS752. Ukraine, a fourth nation whose citizens were killed, is not a state party, but has accepted ICC jurisdiction over alleged crimes committed on its territory since November 2013.
Britain, Canada, Sweden and Ukraine initiated separate legal action against Iran last month at the International Court of Justice. Also based in The Hague, the ICJ is the main judicial organ of the United Nations, responsible for settling legal disputes between states.
In their July 4 application to the ICJ, the four nations alleged breaches of international legal obligations by Iran in relation to the downing. Tehran rejected the move and accused the complainants of acting in pursuit of “political objectives.”
“We have been trying to find out why these countries are reluctant to support our case at the ICC,” Doustshenas told VOA. “We understand that [the ICC prosecutors] are overwhelmed with all kinds of investigations that they are currently undertaking, namely investigations of atrocities in Ukraine and elsewhere. But we do not want our case to be forgotten.”
In his message to VOA, Goodale said that Britain, Canada, Sweden and Ukraine have “taken nothing off the table” in their pursuit of transparency, accountability and justice for the families of the Flight PS752 victims.
“But we are making certain that in the welter of legal moves that might be made, we are proceeding with proper sequencing on a solid footing without mistakes or self-imposed errors,” Goodale wrote.
In reference to the ICC, Goodale said, “As Mr. Doustshenas points out, that office has a lot on its plate right now. In the meantime, we will continue to press forward on other fronts. When you read the text of the remedies we are seeking in the ICJ, they correspond in a major way with the demands of the families from the very beginning.”
The four nations have asked the ICJ to declare that Iran violated the 1971 (Montreal) Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Civil Aviation. They also want the court to order Iran to apologize and extradite or prosecute alleged offenders in a transparent and impartial manner, and require it to return missing belongings of victims and provide full compensation for the families’ suffering.
The families’ association, which thanked the four nations for the ICJ application, has said its primary goal is to “reveal the truth [about Flight PS752] and bring the perpetrators to justice,” which it says will “help put a stop to such heinous crimes.”