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Obligation Now Sits on Ukraine Military

The Age Editorial

July 30, 2014

Retrieving the remains of the 298 passengers of Malaysia Airlines MH17 from the fields of eastern Ukraine was never going to be easy, and nor was the commendable plan to conduct a thorough and independent investigation of the crash and its causes. As noble as the sentiments of various governments may be, and as honourable their goals, the fact remains that the plane was shot down over an active war zone. Dealing with the heavily armed Russia-backed militia units who control the region was only step one.

Those militants, some fuelled by alcohol, created genuine fear and havoc on the ground in the days after the plane was blasted from the skies. They forced back a small contingent of investigators and blundered all over the crash site. But now it is Ukraine’s military forces who are creating problems.

Instead of ceasing fire to allow crash-scene investigators safe and unfettered access, as agreed under a United Nations resolution a week ago, Ukraine’s military has circled to the east of the Russian-backed insurgents and launched several offensives in the past few days. The aim is to retake cities and towns claimed by the militants, including the nearby provincial capital of Donetsk. But the timing is appalling and the Ukraine military’s actions are in breach of the UN resolution.

Constant shelling from artillery close to the crash site, which is spread over many kilometres in the farmlands east of Donetsk, has impeded the passage of investigators from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who are being escorted by unarmed officers of the Australian Federal Police and the Dutch police. On Monday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko urged his country’s parliament to allow the investigators and Australian-Dutch police access to the crash site, but again they were forced to retreat.

This episode appears to be an opportunistic and cynical exploitation of the situation, and it undermines the considerable goodwill accumulated by Ukraine’s Europe-facing parliament in the past six months. After all, just one week ago, on the day the resolution was debated by the UN Security Council, Mr Poroshenko promised Ukraine would halt all its military activities in a zone extending 40 kilometres from the crash site. His promise was subverted by government forces.

The UN resolution was not intended to apply solely to the militants and Russia. It called for all armed groups to back off and provide a safe working environment so that bodies could be recovered from the crash site and OSCE analysts could examine the plane’s wreckage. It called on all states in the region to co-operate fully with the investigation.

The Australian and Dutch governments have spoken almost as one in expressing their aims: to retrieve all the bodies and bring their citizens home; and to properly and thoroughly investigate the cause of the crash so that the criminals who did this will be brought to justice. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop says the Australian and Dutch teams ”will not be deterred in our efforts to get onto that site” and retrieve the bodies. But the reality of operating in a war zone is starting to sink in, and it has been left to senior police officers to say what their governments no doubt are reluctant to concede.

AFP Deputy Commissioner Andrew Colvin on Monday warned there was a possibility that some of the remains of the passengers may never be recovered. His comments were echoed by the most senior officer of the Dutch police, who said: ”I believe the chances are not very good that we will get it all.” What is also not being said, for now, is that justice may be a very long time coming. That does not mean it should be forgone.




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