Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said Thursday that the investigation into the downing of Flight 752 could take years to complete and that the “eyes of the international community” are on Iran. But he was vague about what action Canada and other countries could take to force Iran to co-operate.
“This is a process that will take a number of months and even a number of years,” he said in London. “We are judging Iran every day, demand by demand. Yes, we have good first steps from Iran … this is a long process, so our vision or our assessment is based on the state of facts today.”
Mr. Champagne spoke after a meeting at the Canadian High Commission with foreign ministers from Britain, Ukraine, Sweden and Afghanistan. They make up the International Coordination and Response Group for families of the victims of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, which was shot down by the Iranian military on Jan. 8 shortly after taking off from Tehran airport. All 176 people on board died, including at least 57 Canadians, 11 Ukrainians, 10 Swedes, four Britons and four Afghans.
Heading into the meeting, Canada had been arguing for official standing in the crash probe, which is being led by Iran. Transport Minister Marc Garneau told reporters this week that Iran was co-operating with two Canadian investigators on the scene, but he wanted Canada to have a greater role. “We will be sending very, very strong messages to Iran,” Mr. Garneau said. "President Rouhani has made some comment to the effect that they want to co-operate, but of course the question on everybody’s mind is: Will they deliver on that promise?”
Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Vadym Prystaiko, told The Globe and Mail this week that the five countries of the response group should launch a separate investigation in parallel with the Iranians to ensure transparency.
But on Thursday, the group indicated it will see how far Iran goes in co-operating and taking responsibility for the tragedy. In a statement released after the meeting, the group called on Iran to provide “closure, accountability, transparency and justice for the families and loved ones of all the victims.” Mr. Champagne said the grieving nations want Iran to conduct a thorough investigation with international co-operation. They are also demanding that Iran hold those responsible to justice and recognize its duties “towards the families of the victims and other parties – including compensation.”
He sidestepped questions about what tools the group could use to force Iran to comply, particularly when it comes to paying compensation. “Today is not the day for blame. Today is the day for answers,” he said. “We judge [Iran’s] co-operation on a daily basis.”
So far, he said, Iran has co-operated in issuing visas to investigators from Canada and other countries. Iranian officials are also working with other countries in identifying and repatriating the remains of those who died, he added. “We will judge Iran when it comes to the investigation as to whether international experts will be allowed to join,” he said.
Iran’s policy of not recognizing the second passports of dual nationals has led to negotiations over how the remains of dozens of Iranian-Canadians will be treated, and ultimately where victims are buried. The RCMP are creating DNA profiles in Canada of victims to help Iran identify remains but has not received a formal invitation to help out, The Canadian Press reported.
When asked what pressure the five countries could exert if Iran failed to meet the group’s demands, Mr. Champagne said, “It’s called the international community. The eyes of the international community are on Iran today.”
As the investigation on the ground continued, there was confusion Thursday as to the whereabouts of the plane’s black boxes, which contain critical flight-data information. Conflicting reports indicated the boxes had either been sent to France for decoding or were still in Iran. Mr. Champagne said the confusion demonstrates the need for a transparent investigation with international participation.
The Canadian government is considering offering short-term financial support to the families of the Canadian victims. Ottawa would then be responsible for going after Iran for compensation after the completion of an investigation. Just how Ottawa would recover the money remains unclear, particularly if Iran balks.
The five-member group has also turned to the Netherlands for advice on how to deal with Iran. Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister Stef Blok attended Thursday’s meeting and offered insights into how the Netherlands handled the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which killed 298 people. That flight was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down over eastern Ukraine in 2014. A Dutch-led team of investigators concluded that the plane had been hit by a Russian-made missile fired by Russian-backed separatists. The investigators charged four men with murder – three Russians and a Ukrainian. Russia has denied having any role in the tragedy, and there is little chance any of the men will be arrested.
“We have a lot of experience in dealing with the aftermath of such an experience,” Mr. Blok told reporters before the meeting.
Before the meeting began, Mr. Champagne and the other foreign ministers lit a candle at the High Commission in memory of those who died. The candle was surrounded by the flags of the countries and a list of the victims’ names.