Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst, a former spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the author of the forthcoming book Digital Pandemic.
After spending the past year documenting how dictators have leveraged the pandemic, I would not be exaggerating if I said Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s brazen operation to seize a wanted dissident is a gut punch to the rules-based order created after the Second World War. (edited)
The diversion of a civilian airliner over a purported bomb threat as it transited between the capitals of two European Union members should send a chill down the spines of those of us who have publicly criticized any dictator. It should also encourage air travellers to pay closer attention to their interactive flight maps. (Belarus is not among the 133 signatories to the 1945 International Air Services Transit Agreement, meaning Mr. Lukashenko and his regime can “do anything they want with airlines flying in their airspace,” safety and accident investigator David Soucie reminded me.)
Ever since the downings of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014 and Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 over Tehran in 2020, the skies in and around countries in conflict have become increasingly unsafe and unpredictable. Sadly, the body with the mandate to keep our skies safe – the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) – moves at such a glacial pace that it doesn’t make any difference.
Mr. Lukashenko’s brazen actions demanded a response nothing short of banning Belarus’s national flag carrier, Belavia, from European skies and discouraging EU-registered airliners from overflying Belarus. It was good to see these measures, along with promises of further sanctions, implemented. Anything less would have sent a signal to other authoritarian regimes that it is okay to pluck a civilian airliner out of the sky to seize a wanted opponent. Might China, for example, be tempted to divert an Air Canada flight overflying the mainland to seize a Canadian passenger to face the music for breaching Article 38, which targets foreigners, of Hong Kong’s vaguely worded National Security Law?
Why the erratic Mr. Lukashenko would reach so far to snag dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, risking the lives of more than 120 passengers from multiple countries aboard Ryanair Flight 4978, boggles the mind. Clearly, opponents such as Mr. Protasevich – who co-founded the Telegram channel Nexta Live, which helped inform protesters during the uprisings in Belarus last year – have leveraged technology to the point that authoritarian governments consider them enormous threats. Such channels enable opponents to orchestrate cat-and-mouse manoeuvres to frustrate countermeasures by government thugs.
Mr. Protasevich was as big a threat to Mr. Lukashenko as Alexey Navalny, another social media-savvy critic, was to Russian President Vladimir Putin. There is no way Belarus could have pulled off the operation by itself, leading many to believe Russian intelligence tipped off Minsk that Mr. Protasevich was boarding a flight in Athens.
Going forward, preventing such mid-air snatch-and-grab operations will require the co-operation of airlines, though low-cost carriers may be reluctant to implement expensive countermeasures. Cockpit crews will require clear guidance on how to react in such cases. In addition, airlines and regulators need to prevent passenger manifests from falling into the hands of any rogue state they are flying over.
For its part, Ottawa needs to organize the safe repatriation of Canadian nationals in Belarus, especially those at risk of persecution. Sources tell me the situation is deteriorating rapidly and there is good reason to be concerned about their safety. The program that was offered in response to the implementation of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, inviting young people to study and work in Canada, should be extended to Belarus, which has a vast talent pool of youth skilled in technology.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was not off base in describing the events on Sunday as a “clear attack on democracy” and “dangerous interference” in civil aviation.
On the bright side, such geopolitical stumbles as the one committed by Mr. Putin’s puppet in Belarus offer an opportunity for the free world to unite in a show of strength against the superpower tyranny that Russia and China represent.
But unless addressed in the firmest possible terms, this state-sponsored criminal act by Belarus, probably with the collaboration of the Kremlin, will greatly diminish the gains made in the past decades to make civil aviation safer.
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