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The search for answers begins in tragedy of flight MH17

A Malaysia Airlines plane was shot down Thursday by an anti-aircraft missile purportedly fired by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. The deaths of the 298 people on the plane are an outrage of unspeakable proportions, and it is time to call for a credible international investigation into the tragedy and urge Russia, which supplies separatists with a steady flow of support, including heavy weapons, training and antiaircraft systems, to cooperate.

The incident has raised many questions; especially whether MH17 should had been flying over war-torn eastern Ukraine. According to various sources, this air route between Europe and Asia is followed by dozens of jets a day. Why did the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) declare the flight route safe? More importantly, could the MH17 tragedy have been avoided? The response to this last question is regretfully “yes.”

Based on the precautionary principle — the precept that an action should not be taken if the consequences are uncertain and potentially dangerous — the ICAO, Malaysia Airlines, Russian and Ukrainian authorities as well as the leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), should have anticipated the consequences of the worsening conflict with the pro-Russian separatists. They should have taken into account anticipatory actions of the parties involved, the right of travelers to know the risks involved in their journey, the need for alternative assessments and full cost accounting in war times as well as the importance of a participatory decision-making process that clearly evaluates the irreversible damage that could be caused to those who have nothing to do with an armed conflict — travelers.

To begin with, they should have considered anticipatory actions in the region. Pro-separatist rebels already shot down a fighter jet and a military transport plane — two low-flying Ukrainian aircraft — earlier this week. There was a duty to take anticipatory actions to prevent last week's incident. Some airlines had already been avoiding the area amid concerns over the deteriorating security, but many government organizations, businesses and international groups who had failed to take any actions now share major responsibility for the crash.

After all, travelers have the right to know prior to departure the risks involved in our journey and the burden to supply this information lies with the carriers, not with the general public. In late April, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a Notice to Airman (NOTAM) prohibiting U.S. carriers from flying over the Crimean region and portions adjacent to the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov due to the unilateral and illegal action by Russia to assert control over Crimean airspace. The same organization issued another NOTAM on Tuesday prohibiting flights between 26,000 feet and 32,000 feet in an expanded area close to where MH17 crashed. Malaysia Airlines said in a statement Friday that the pilots of MH17 filed a flight plan asking to fly at 35,000 feet throughout Ukrainian airspace. Upon entering this airspace, however, Ukrainian air traffic controllers instructed MH7 to fly at 33,000 feet. Even though the flight plan was approved by Eurocontrol, the sole organization responsible for determining civil aircraft flight paths over European airspace, who is responsible for allowing passenger jets to fly at high altitudes over one of the world's hotspots? Who should the families believe in their quest for an answer to this tragedy?

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