Dutch political handling of MH17 disaster annoys and irritates

Ruben Veenstra & Lieuwe de Vries for 
Veenstra & de Vries Aviation Publishing

After much talk and speculation in the press on the MH17 disaster, a debate between the Dutch government and the political opposition was finally held on the matter. It soon became bogged down in semantics, half denial and fuzzy politicisms on behalf of the government.

When MH17 was shot down many people were moved by foreign minister Frans Timmermans’ emotional speech, many people were equally reassured by prime minister Mark Rutte’s tough words that no stone would be left unturned to find out what and who caused the tragic death of so many innocent passengers. Now, more then 200 days on, the Dutch government’s handling of the accident is causing concern and annoyance amongst public and politicians alike.

Trouble first started brewing for the coalition government when it was discovered that the members of a multinational research panel are bound by a non-disclosure agreement, essentially resulting in a veto for every participating country regarding the release of information about the investigation. When confronted about this government officials made vague comments neither acknowledging nor denying such an agreement. When pressed repeatedly about the existence of such a document the responsible minister, minister for Safety and Justice Mr Opstelten, stated that the Joint Investigation Team members had agreed to “act together” and “exercise restraint” when releasing information but refused to comment on any possible agreement. When Dutch media contacted the Australian government however they were informed that indeed a non-disclosure agreement existed, with the Australians stating that ”this agreement requires consensus among the parties before information regarding the investigation can be released”.

Many of the political and public debates to date have focused on the question of why MH17 was flying over an area where Ukrainian air force aircraft had recently been shot down. While most shoot downs early in the conflict were aircraft and helicopters operating at lower altitudes, on July 14th an Antonov 26 cargo plane flying above 21.000 feet was shot down. Following this incident the Ukrainian authorities issued a notice to airmen, abbreviated as NOTAM, closing the airspace over the eastern part of the country below flight level 320, or 32.000 feet.


The notice to airmen issued by the Ukranian authorities closing of airspace over the Donbas region below 32.000 feet

The most recent debate, held February 5th, closed in on the question of who is, or should have been, responsible for what airspace airlines are allowed to operate in. The minister for Safety and Justice, Mr. Ivo Opstelten, had previously commented that airlines are primarily responsible for the safe execution of their flights and make their own safety assessments. This stance was repeated word for word by all coalition representatives during the five hour-long debate, much to the dismay of the opposition. The opposing parties argued that with all the information publicly available the government could have come to the conclusion that Ukrainian air-space was not safe at any flight level. In return, the government replied that despite the deployment of, and training with, heavy anti-aircraft materiel on the Russian side of the border and the downing of the Antonov aircraft, there were no warnings issued for civilian flights operating above 32.000 feet.

Even though there had been no official warning by the Kiev government the writing was on the wall for all to see. While many of the shoot downs early in the conflict could have been attributed to anti aircraft artillery or short ranged shoulder launched missiles the shoot down of the Antonov on the 14th signaled that the separatist air defences had reached a new level of complexity. Though this was the first shoot down by an obviously more capable threat then had been seen before during the conflict it was by no means a surprise.

NATO had known about the proliferation of more complex air defence systems since at least the previous month. The alliances Supreme Allied Commander U.S. General Breedlove commented in a press conference about increased heavy weaponry, including air defence weapon systems, on both sides of the Ukraine – Russia border. He commented that this heavy weaponry was finding it’s way in to the hands of the separatist forces.

Three days before the downing of MH17 members of the Dutch consulate attended a bi-weekly briefing by Ukrainian minister of foreign affairs Klimkin and Valeriy Chaly, the deputy head of the presidential staff. During this briefing the two discussed the transfer of heavy weapons from Russia to the separatist in the Donetsk and Loehansk area. Chaly specifically mentioned the Antonov that was shot down, stating that it was destroyed in a manner not normally used by separatists. Klimkin added that the aircraft was operating at 21.000 feet and could have only been shot down by advanced air defence systems or another aircraft. Both are things the separatists were not thought to have possessed at that point.

That afternoon defence minister Valeriy Heletey left even less room for doubt, the Antonov could not have been shot down by so called MANPADS, Man Portable Air Defence Systems which are commonly shoulder launched infra red guided missiles. After the briefing the Dutch embassy staff reported the contents via normal interdepartmental procedures.

Little seems to have happened with the information though. When various members of parliament submitted question regarding the briefing they were told that the report on its content would not be made public because it was a diplomatic matter. Though diplomatic communications are not routinely made public it is not unheard of. During a probe into the Dutch contribution to the war in Iraq such documents were made public for instance. Though the information was spread to certain departments prior to and after the shoot down of MH17 others still only have limited access. Amongst those with limited access crucially is the Dutch Safety Board, the Dutch equivalent to America’s National Transport Safety Board, the very people investigating the shoot down of the doomed Malaysia Airlines jet.

The Dutch government refuses to acknowledge that more could have been done prior to the downing of MH17, laying the responsibility solely at the feet of the airlines. The decision to still operate over eastern Ukraine at a few thousand feet above a fairly arbitrary altitude limit might have been rather naïve. It stands to reason that any air defence system capable of hitting an airliner at 31.000 feet would be perfectly capable of doing the same at 33.000 feet. Though technically the Dutch government has few legal tools to ban flights through certain airspace it could give advisory warnings to airlines to avoid conflict zones. In practice such an advisory warning would probably be as effective as a ban while avoiding many of the legal and diplomatic ramifications. It wouldn’t have been the first time such a warning had been issued either, when Dutch intelligence services learned of plots to attack airlines flying to diving resorts in Egypt’s Sinai desert it issued a warning to airlines. Following this warning airlines avoided airports in the region for a number of weeks.

The governments lacklustre handling of the process, with secretive behaviour about information that often turned out to be public knowledge or easily verified through other parties only serves to instill distrust in onlookers. One Member of Parliament, Louis Bontes formerly of Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party, even went so far as to say that the whole process smacked of a cover-up. In the end, the five hour-long debate ended with no one being any the wiser for it and a “thank you” to the caterer.