Responsibility for MH17 (1): Who could be Accountable?

There are, broadly, two sorts of responsibility. There is ‘bringing about’, or causal, responsibility, and there is responsibility in the sense of accountability. Both persons, human beings, and inanimate things can be responsible for events in the causal sense, but only persons or agents can be accountable. What is means to be responsible for something in this second sense is that the person or persons in question are required to give an account which shows that they should not be blamed or punished for what they did. If such an account is successful, then this means that the person has justified himself in the sense that the blame or punishment, or other sanction or penalty, is no longer applicable. I have written about responsibility at length elsewhere -  see for instance the two pod casts on this website – but here I want to address briefly the responsibility for the dreadful tragedy that befell Flight MH17.

Accountability often (but not always) ‘tracks’ causal responsibility in that those who are to be held to account for something, and almost always this is for something bad or harmful, have either caused that event or have made some causal contribution to its occurrence. One simple way to decide whether a person made a causal contribution to something is this: ask what would have happened if he did not do what he did on the occasion in question, and if no one else did that same thing, would the event in question still have occurred? If it would not have occurred, then by this (first) criterion the agent did indeed make a causal contribution. Flight MH17 appears to have been shot down by a surface-to-air Buk M2 missile fired from Eastern Ukraine. Granted that it was, then suppose, as seems obvious, that the missile needed to be deployed, made operational, armed, locked onto the aircraft and fired. Had anyone who played any part in this sequence of events not done what they did, and no one else performed that  task, then the aircraft would not have been shot down. Again, this seems obvious: had no one fired the missile, then the plane would not have been shot down; had the missile not been locked on to the target by someone operating the acquisition radar, the plane would not have been shot down, and so on.


The first matter that has to be decided in determining who is accountable for the killing of the some three hundred people on MH17 is therefore to identify who made a causal contribution. The analysis given above appears straightforward, but things quickly get more complicated. For instance, if no one gave the order to perform the tasks needed to fire the missile – one assumes it was not a unilateral actions by the crew - then the plane would not have been shot down, and giving orders clearly amounts to a causal contribution by our criterion. Indeed, there may have been a chain of command stretching who knows where. If the origin of the order to fire can be determined, then everyone who carried out the order, and of course the person who gave it, is accountable. Just to be clear, to be accountable is not yet to be blamed: for instance, if “following orders” were sufficient by way of a justification, which I do not think it is, then only the authority giving the order would not escape blame by way of this justification. But matters are still more complex.


In addition to the direct military (or paramilitary) action, there are other issues to do with the missile system. There is, for example, the question of who authorised its deployment and what was what to be used for, assuming that it was not supposed to be used for shooting down civilian airliners. Did the Russians give it to the Ukrainian separatists, and if so, on whose ultimate authority was that decision based? Again, the people involved here would then be accountable, though again the question of blame would have to be decided. I take the view that even the Buk M2’s manufacturers and designers should be held to account, and this spreads the net very wide. (There is more, and will be much more, along these lines on my Page on Weapons Research.) There is, finally, on the other side of the coin so to speak, the actions of the airline and of others. Questions are being raised today about the risk of deliberately flying over what is essentially a war zone. Malaysian Airlines took that risk and it is ultimately the airline that decides which routes to take. There are bodies, such International Air Transport Association, who issues warnings and give advice. On our criterion, such a body would not be accountable unless if its failure to give a warning that would have actually affected the route chosen by the airline, namely had them choose a different way to go. All those in the airline whose decisions led to MH17 being over Eastern Ukraine are also to be held to account. 


This picture is surely complicated enough, but in fact there are further elements that can be added, unfortunately! I said that accountability often ‘tracks’ causal responsibility. But there is a distinction which is often made in such analysis between actual causal conditions and background enabling conditions and the latter are said not to be strictly causes – the presence of oxygen when a match is struck is a favourite example of philosophers: without oxygen no flame,  but the presence of oxygen is not really a cause. In this case, without a war, combat operations, or what have you in Ukraine, it would have been safe to fly over the country. So what of those who created these conditions? Are they accountable as well? Last of all, I want to mention something else. If a person could have intervened and prevented a causal  contribution from being made, and hence prevented the occurrence, but failed to do so, then there are circumstances in which that persons may be accountable, and may be blamed - I will refer to this as the second criterion for accountability. Ukrainian air traffic control, for instance, could have forbidden MH17 from flying over its territory, but it did not.


 Once the network of causes responsible for the shooting down of MH17 has been identified, the next task is to decide who is to blame. I will write a post about how to address that issue. 

Write a comment

Comments: 1
  • #1

    Maragaret Alexander (Saturday, 04 February 2017 02:37)

    I like the valuable info you provide in your articles. I'll bookmark your blog and check again here frequently. I'm quite sure I will learn plenty of new stuff right here! Best of luck for the next!