The chief executive officer of Ryanair, Michael O’Leary, called it “state-sponsored piracy.” The White House described it as “a brazen affront to international peace and security.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it was “outrageous, illegal and completely unacceptable.”
Those are a few of the entirely accurate words used to describe the Belarus government’s hijacking of a civilian airliner on Sunday. The Ryanair flight was travelling from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania; as it overflew Belarus, the pilot was abruptly ordered to land in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, with a military jet sent up to drive the point home. Once on the ground, a dissident journalist and his girlfriend were removed from the plane and arrested.
It’s impossible to overstate the gravity of this illegal act, and the need for a united response that will make Belarus regret its actions, and dissuade others from emulating it.
It’s no exaggeration to say that intercepting an international airliner, in mid-flight, in order to kidnap a political foe, undermines the entire system of global trade and travel.
That one of the arrested people, Roman Protasevich, works for a website that has repeatedly embarrassed Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko certainly adds to the ugliness of the situation.
But freedom of the press is not the issue here. It doesn’t matter who Mr. Lukashenko’s target was. What’s at stake is the delicate web of post-Second World War treaties and rules that allows airlines to safely carry their passengers to and from international destinations.
The thousands of flights that take off every hour around the globe – even during pandemic times – do so in the belief that they won’t be hijacked and boarded by agents of a peevish dictator whose airspace they happen to be crossing.
Allowing a country to violate this convention, as Belarus has done without apology, puts anyone boarding an international flight in peril. It’s one thing to wonder if your plane will leave on time; it’s another having to worry that it might be forced to divert to a surprise destination in an unfriendly country, with an armed fighter jet floating menacingly off the starboard wing.
The international community is now faced with the difficult job of responding to what British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab described as Mr. Lukashenko’s “shocking assault on civil aviation.”
The targeted sanctions that the European Union, the United States and Canada have imposed on members of the Belarus regime in the past, in response to human rights and elections violations, have done little to rein in Mr. Lukashenko.
He is supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin and obviously has limited fear of repercussions – on Monday, Belarus state media boasted that Mr. Lukashenko had ordered the hijacking himself. He clearly isn’t too worried about a few more cronies losing their overseas banking privileges.
So what to do? A number of major airlines based in Europe agreed this week to a call from the EU to stop routing planes over Belarus. But that’s a precautionary action, not a reprisal.
A tougher move is the EU’s call to ban Belarus-based airlines from its airspace and its airports, effectively cutting off the country’s direct access to Western Europe.
But a broader response could still come from the airline industry itself, and from international aviation bodies.
That includes the International Civil Aviation Organization, the United Nations air transport body based in Montreal. It has condemned the hijacking and says it will investigate the apparent violation of a foundational aviation treaty.
The ICAO, along with NATO and the airlines themselves, are in the best position to sanction Belarus in the only way that might work: by grounding it until Mr. Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, are safely released.
All countries not called Russia should end Belarus-based airlines’ access to their airspace and airports, even if it’s largely a symbolic move that only Western carriers are likely to pursue. Airlines from outraged states should also be asked to avoid Belarus airspace and suspend service to the country.
While we’re at it, should Mr. Lukashenko be allowed to enjoy international flights after boasting of ordering a hijacking? Russia and its allies may welcome overflights by his presidential jet; others should not.
Strong words and a few more sanctions aren’t enough to respond to the Ryanair hijacking. Mr. Lukashenko needs to be hit with a bad case of air sickness.
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