Russia Is Being Sued for the Downing of Flight MH17 That Killed 298 People

Malaysia has backed an Australian and Dutch lawsuit that seeks to hold Russia accountable for the 2014 downing of the passenger jet.
MH17 debris
A reconstruction of the debris from Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which was downed by a Russian missile while midair in Ukraine on July 17, 2014. Photo: AP / Peter Dejong

Russia is facing a lawsuit before a UN-backed aviation council for the downing of a commercial plane in Ukrainian skies, in a move widely seen as an eleventh-hour effort to get the country to take responsibility for the crash that killed all 298 people onboard.

The governments of Australia and the Netherlands on March 15 “initiated legal proceedings” against Russia at the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization, claiming the country violated international law when Russian or Russian-backed fighters fired a Russian-made missile at Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 as it flew over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014.


“We cannot and will not allow the death of 298 people, including 196 Dutch nationals, to go unanswered. The current events in Ukraine underscore the vital importance of this,” said Dutch foreign minister Wopke Hoekstra.

The Malaysian government said today it would participate in the proceedings, as it urged “all states and parties involved to fully cooperate in the trial.”

“We are committed to seeking justice for the families of the victims including 43 Malaysian nationals on board the aircraft,” said Malaysian transport minister Wee Ka Siong.

When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Malaysians were quick to highlight the MH17 tragedy, lamenting the lack of accountability over the crime. 

“If Malaysians needed only one reason to stand with Ukraine, let it be in memory of MH17. A plane full of innocent civilians shot down by pro-Russian separatists in 2014,” said Malaysian Twitter user Rohan Javet Beg. “Of the 298 souls aboard, 43 were Malaysian. They died as a result of Putin's imperialist ambitions.”

Southeast Asia-focused political analyst Bridget Welsh, from the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia campus, also criticised the lack of justice in the case. 


“The downing of Malaysia Airlines MH17 reminds the world that the [Russia-Ukraine crisis] also affects those based outside of Europe. Innocent people lost their lives in the first round of Russian aggression and there has been no justice in this event,” she told VICE World News. 

Casualties from the disaster included 38 Australians, and others from Indonesia, the UK, Belgium, Germany, the Philippines, Canada, and New Zealand. Fighting was rife between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatist groups in the Donetsk region when a Buk-TELAR missile hit the plane midair on a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. 

An earlier, separate international investigation led by the Netherlands found that the missile system that launched the projectile belonged to a Russian brigade operating in the separatist-held part of Ukraine, and that it could only have been fired by trained Russian crew or by someone under their instruction. Four suspects—three Russians and one Ukrainian—are now being tried in absentia.

A joint statement from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Foreign Minister Marise Payne, and Attorney-General Michaelia Cash said this most recent case was needed to “hold Russia to account.” 

“Russia's unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine and the escalation of its aggression underscores the need to continue our enduring efforts to hold Russia to account for its blatant violation of international law and the UN Charter, including threats to Ukraine's sovereignty and airspace,” it said. 


The case, while “unrelated” to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, was “carefully and independently prepared,” the litigants noted, after Russia bolted out of negotiations with Australia and the Netherlands to compensate the bereaved families in October 2020.

Cash said they are now asking the ICAO “to order that the parties immediately enter good faith negotiations to resolve expeditiously the matters of full reparation for the injury caused by Russia’s breach.”

MH17 crash site

Ukrainian emergency workers carry a victim's body in a body bag as pro-Russian fighters stand guard at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 near the village of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine in July 2014. Photo: AP / Evgeniy Maloletka

To compel Russia to head back to the table, Australia and the Netherlands are asking the ICAO to suspend Russia’s voting rights within the council until a “satisfactory outcome” results from negotiations.

Although the ICAO exists mainly to set global standards for civilian aviation, the Chicago Convention of 1944 that instituted it features a dispute settlement provision for party states that is able to pave the way for trial at the International Court of Justice. This function has rarely been used, and some experts doubt it would avail much from Russia.

“ICAO can say to Russia that it must return to the negotiating table, but in terms of being able to enforce it, the most it can do is suspend Russia’s voting rights in the ICAO Council and ICAO Assembly,” University of New South Wales aviation law lecturer Ron Bartsch told The Conversation.

Additional reporting by Heather Chen.

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