The fuselage of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 operating flight MH17 was extensively punctured by “high energy objects” that entered from outside, says the initial report. The weakened hull then broke up, and wreckage was widely scattered over agricultural land in rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine.
The investigators have carefully avoided suggesting what the source of the high energy particles might have been. There is so much at stake here that there is no room for error in fact or procedure. So even if it has been impossible to keep the crash site sterile because of the lawlessness in the conflict zone, the investigation must remain sterile, avoiding language that could be construed as showing political bias.
Many accident investigators attempt to adhere to the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s standards laid down in Annex 13 to the Chicago Convention, but this team must abide rigidly by the diktat that its task is not to allocate blame, but to prevent future such occurrences. Although technically in charge of the investigation, Ukraine quickly recognised that because of the fraught political atmosphere, and given its strained relations with Russia in the light of the latter’s overt support of the rebellion in its eastern area where the aircraft came down, it was impossible for Kiev to be perceived as a neutral party in the investigation.
So, six days after the loss of MH17, leadership of the investigation was transferred to the Dutch Safety Board. This was a slightly arbitrary decision, based on the fact that the Netherlands has the resources and expertise, but also that many more Dutch citizens lost their lives in the aircraft than from any other state.
Meanwhile, in a skilful diplomatic move behind the scenes, Malaysia persuaded the Ukrainian rebel forces in control of the accident site to surrender the flight recorders, which Kuala Lumpur handed to the Dutch Safety Board. This then passed them to the UK for downloading under Dutch and international supervision. When that was complete, the boxes and data were returned to the board. Apart from the Netherlands and the UK, five other states, including Russia, are involved.
Above all, the reason this investigation team must be both exemplary and transparent is that the impossibility of securing the crash site will enable any state that does not like the eventual conclusions to allege they are invalid. The investigation procedure and the final report itself must have such integrity that any rebuttal will have no credibility.