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Pictures Left Incomplete: MH17 and the Joint Investigation Team

The investigation into the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over two years ago always had the flavour of pre-emption, caked with assumptions of premature adjudication. Neither side, be it the assembled Joint Investigation Team, nor those on the Russian side, was going to budge on the issue of the material. In the world of the post-factoid, what matters is the sale of what we believe to be facts.

In this marketplace of saleable facts, the issue becomes how fabulous the narrative can be. Find your audience, and the relevant pitch, and half your work is done.   Discoveries are made at short notice, be it data captured by a smart phone, intercepts of conversations, or radar data of the raw sort revealed with impeccable timing.

What is lost in this agitated discussion are the bloody realities of conflict, the hideous nature of those last moments when 298 civilians lost their lives over a war zone. It took a decision, made on the spur, to end the lives of those people. What we have gotten, instead of a broader reflection of the conflict that caused those deaths, not to mention thousands of others, is a deeper quagmire, a furiously ideological joust between detractors and participants.

The cruel and broadly sobering picture of those moments in July 2014 did not seem to have much truck in the JIT display. In the presentation, the JIT makes it clear that it was presenting “the first results of the criminal investigation into the downing of flight MH17 on 17 July 2014.”[1]

This was meant to be a show by the avengers of objectivity, coming to the rescue with clarity and positivist reassurance. “The big difference with a journalistic commentary or an internet-based investigation report,” went the presentation, “is that in our case conclusions based on probability will not suffice.” There was, in fact “legal and convincing evidence.” Helped along, of course, with the bells and smells of modern animation and social media.

That convincing evidence supposedly found the culprit: “that flight MH17 was shot down… by a missile of the 9M38 series, launched by a BUK-TELAR, from farmland in the vicinity of Pervomaiskiy (or: Pervomaiskyi).”

At that time, the area was under pro-Russian rebel control, while the BUK-TELAR had been “brought in from the territory of the Russian Federation and subsequently, after having shot down flight MH-17, was taken back to the Russian Federation.”

For such pomp and certainty, much of the detail remained as before, with similar questions left tantalisingly dangling in the aftermath. For instance, an acknowledgment is made about the role played by the generous supply line from Bellingcat, which purports to use readily available open source material in the name of citizen journalism.

The lingering sense of a conspiratorial design to murder, a point that has been unequivocally embraced by such figures as former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, was never dispersed. A hundred persons had been identified “who in one way or the other can be linked to the crash of flight MH17 or the transport of the BUK.” Their identity, the JIT noted smugly, had been established.

As Editor-in-Chief at Fort Russ explained to Russia Today, the origins behind the makeup of the JIT lay in a NATO ploy, creating an inquiry team that was always compromised for its raison d’être. What mattered was how Russia was involved, not the question of who actually pulled the trigger.[2] This very point was amply illustrated by the dominant role played by Ukraine on the JIT, when its absence might have been contemplated along with that of Russia.

Bathed in the aura of criminality, the note of the report never loses the whodunit sense, the forensic pursuit of twenty weapons systems, the perusal of five billion internet pages, the inspection of dozens of containers “with thousands of wreckage parts” all examined by an army of some 100 to 200 investigators.

Absent in the JIT presentation was one glaring elephant waiting to stomp in the room. Where, for instance, did Ukraine figure in this? This is not to even take the line, as has been put forth by the Russian Defence Ministry, that there had been no signs of a missile being fired at MH17 from rebel controlled territory. (This was deemed “raw data” newly unearthed by Almaz-Antey.)

The broad issue of Ukrainian culpability in permitting MH17 to be in the vicinity of a conflict area when there had been prior knowledge of targeted flights, was not a point the JIT considered. Ukrainian criminal law was mentioned in so far as it might be useful in prosecuting any personnel who had manned the BUK, but not the violations of an assortment of aviation conventions and protocols. What we saw instead was the relentless cold march of minutiae.

The sense of creeping under a shroud of international deception, releasing the missile with callous calculation, then moving back into Russian territory, suggested a trick of terrorist import, a mission of the damned. By the JIT conveying such a tone, the sense that a war of tragic miscalculation and foolishness, along with the bloody mistakes that came with it, and continue to do so, was lost.

Notes.

[1] https://www.om.nl/onderwerpen/mh17-vliegramp/presentaties/presentation-joint/

[2] https://www.rt.com/news/360946-mh17-ukraine-fabricate-evidence/

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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