By: Nima Ashtari
Saturday, January 8th, marked exactly two years since Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 (PS752) over Tehran, killing all 176 passengers and crew on board (Al Jazeera 2020). Of the passengers, 138 had ties to Canada, and 8 were members of the University of Toronto community (Matti 2020). Canada has the opportunity to affirm its human rights commitments by vigorously demanding answers, accountability, and justice for the victims of PS752 and victims of countless other human rights abuses perpetrated by the Iranian regime. However, the Canadian response has thus been inadequate.
Two years after the downing of PS752, families of the victims and their loved ones are still struggling to find answers from the Iranian government and garner meaningful support from the international community. In the three days following the tragedy, Iran sought only to obfuscate and deny: Iranian authorities promptly bulldozed the crash site to remove evidence and blamed the tragedy on engine failure (Reuters 2020). As multiple intelligence agencies compiled evidence suggesting that the IRGC was involved, Iran was forced to change its narrative. On July 11th, the Iranian government admitted that the IRGC shot down the aircraft by accident after mistaking it for a hostile target (McKernan 2020). To this day, Iran’s halfhearted admission of guilt remains the only source of closure for the families of the deceased passengers. An independent investigation of the crash in line with international standards was never completed. Iran has yet to impose legal consequences on any senior officials involved in the decision to fire at the aircraft.
Fortunately, the families of some of the victims have been able to find marginal relief through a civil lawsuit in the Ontario Court of Justice. Last May, Justice Edward Belobaba of Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice ruled in a civil lawsuit that Iran’s actions on January 8th constituted an intentional “act of terrorism” (Burke and Tizhoosh 2021). On January 3rd, the same court awarded $107 million in compensation to a small group of plaintiffs who had lost loved ones in the crash (Burke 2022). However, the significance of the judge’s ruling is severely dampened by the fact that Iran declined to represent itself in court and will undoubtedly use the ruling as an excuse to distance itself from the negotiating table. Additionally, financial compensation has never been a priority for the affected family members, who want to see the IRGC be held accountable and for the truth to be revealed.
Hamed Esmailion serves as President of The Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims. In his January 8th speech commemorating the second anniversary of the downing of the flight, he emphasized the lack of interest most families have in seeking financial compensation before other thorough investigations. “We will not contemplate any financial compensation before the truth, and nothing but the truth is revealed,” Esmailion said. “[Canada] told us to be patient. They told us that all options are on the table. And we waited for these options to be checked off. But now, after two years, we realize that our patience has not paid off” (PS752Justice 2022).
Esmailion and the Victims’ Association have repeatedly voiced the avenues Canada must pursue with urgency if it hopes to deliver the justice and truth victims are seeking. Canada should launch an international investigation into the regime’s conduct and present its findings to the International Civil Aviation Association (ICAO) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ). These findings could help shed light on Iran’s true motives, reveal the specific officials involved in the decision to down the aircraft, and assign responsibility accordingly. Canada could continue by designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization in response to its crimes, encouraging other countries to do the same. Perhaps most importantly, Canada should apply maximum pressure on the Iranian regime by employing the Magnitsky Act against Iran and attempting to seize any available Iranian assets in Canada.
Instead of pursuing any of these solutions, the Canadian government has preferred to engage in the impossible task of diplomacy with Iran, hoping that the regime will negotiate in good faith with Canada and the families of victims. Iran has rarely, if ever, shown the capacity for good faith negotiations with Western powers, and Canada should stop trying.
Unfortunately, Iran’s actions on January 8th and in the weeks following were not particularly surprising. The regime is burdened by a long and bloody record of human rights abuses, from its brutal execution of thousands of political dissidents in 1988 to its deadly hostility toward demonstrators protesting a fraudulent election in 2009 or a lack of clean water in 2021. The Islamic Republic of Iran will continue infringing on internationally recognized human rights with impunity until its demise, which is why all foreign policy directed towards Iran should ultimately aim to remove the Islamic Republic’s clerics from power. A good place to start would be for the West to stand with the families of the victims of PS752 in firm solidarity and demand accountability, truth, and justice from the regime. As the world witnessed after the downing of PS752, the Islamic Republic’s crimes are not a problem for Iran’s people alone—the regime’s crimes reverberate pain and suffering throughout the world.
Al Jazeera. 2020. “‘No survivors’: Ukrainian jet crashes in Iran with 176 on board.” Al Jazeera, January 8, 2020.
Burke, Ashley, and Nahayat Tizhoosh. 2021. “Iran intentionally shot down Flight PS752 in ‘an act of terrorism,’ Ontario court rules.” CBC, May 20, 2021.
Burke, Ashley. 2022. “Ontario court awards $107M to families of Flight PS752 victims.” CBC, January 3, 2022.
Matti, Mariam. 2022 “‘They all moved to Canada to do something bigger’: Remembering the victims of Flight PS752.” UofT News, January 7, 2022.
McKernan, Bethan. 2020. “Iran admits unintentionally shooting down Ukrainian airliner.” The Guardian, January 11, 2020.
PS752Justice. 2022. “LIVE: 2nd Anniversary of the Downing of Flight PS752.” YouTube Video, January 8, 2022. https://youtu.be/AvtUn5XyXjY
Reuters Staff, 2020. “Iran denies Ukrainian plane was hit by missile – statement.” Reuters, January 9, 2020.