OTTAWA - Canada and its allies are being urged to aggressively reach into the Iranian government's pocket to find untapped sources of assets to compensate for the regime's downing of a commercial airliner two years ago.
That includes a call to use U.S. President Joe Biden's new high-profile ambassador to the world's international aviation watchdog – Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the pilot who heroically landed a plane on water outside New York City more than a decade ago – to spearhead that effort.
At issue is how to compensate families and loved ones of the Jan. 8, 2020 tragedy that saw Iran's Revolutionary Guard shoot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 shortly after it took off from Tehran airport. All 176 people on board were killed, the majority with links to Canada, along with nationals of Britain, Sweden, Afghanistan and Ukraine.
The Washington-based Foundation for Defence of Democracies says the U.S. should target the money Iran collects from international airlines for using its airspace for overflights. The foundation says Sullenberger has a part to play in his new role as the newly appointed American representative to the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization.
Toby Dershowitz, the foundation's senior vice president on government relations, said Iran lost about $96 million in overflight revenue in 2020, a 50 per cent decline over the previous year due to a decrease in flights because of PS752 and the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Further targeting overflights through a coordinated ban, therefore, presents an additional path forward to induce Iran to take full responsibility for the PS752 downing," she told The Canadian Press on Sunday.
"The Biden administration, in conjunction with Canada and the United Kingdom, should consider creating a special escrow account into which Iran's overflight fees would be deposited until it is determined that the regime has demonstrably complied with its international obligations by answering all remaining questions and identify those responsible in the PS752 case, as well as demonstrate improved safety measures have been implemented."
Dershowitz previously suggested the approach in an op-ed published last week in The Hill, a Washington-based political publication. In it, she called specifically for Sullenberger to pursue the matter at the ICAO.
Sullenberger is the retired U.S. air force pilot who gained international fame in 2009 after he safely landed an Airbus 320 commercial airliner on the waters of the Hudson River next to the New York City skyline after his plane's engines were disabled by a flock of geese.
"The U.S. has a responsibility and a vital role to play in holding the Islamic Republic of Iran accountable for downing PS752. Both Captain Sullenberger, the U.S. representative to the International Civil Aviation Organization, and our top diplomats, should not look the other way in the face of Iran's coverup of this act of terrorism," wrote Dershowitz.
"The U.S. should not allow the Islamic Republic to profit from overflight fees collected for use of its airspace until Tehran accepts full criminal responsibility for the downing of PS752."
A spokesperson for ICAO told The Canadian Press that it does not have the mandate to take a harder line on Iran regarding the PS752 tragedy, as many are urging it to do.
"Proposals such as this would be considered by other countries through ICAO should the United States eventually formally propose this measure for their diplomatic consideration," the ICAO said in a written response to questions.
"Contrary to what has been alluded to in much of the reporting on this subject, our organization has no capability or mandate to penalize or reprimand countries when they may have contravened global aviation standards or norms. Under international law only countries themselves can hold other countries to account, and usually through economic or other sanctions, etc."
Global Affairs Canada said the government continues to work with Britain, Sweden and Ukraine to pursue transparency, justice and accountability with Iran.
"Our demands go beyond obtaining compensation," spokesman Jason Kung said Sunday.
"At the moment, we cannot comment further on the specifics of our legal strategy or any other actions Canada might take to ensure that Iran is held accountable for this tragedy."
Kung said Canada and its allies have pursued Iran at the ICAO, the United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Council and "have worked closely with the Special Rapporteurs for extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary killings and for Iran."
Saturday's second anniversary of the shootdown also highlighted the repeated calls by many – including the group that represents PS752 families – for governments to impose punitive human rights sanctions targeting the Iranian officials they deem responsible.
Yonah Diamond, a lawyer for the Montreal-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights who is also representing families of PS752 victims, said pursuing Iran for overflight fees is "an interesting prospect," but challenges will still remain in collecting from the regime whether through the ICAO or the International Court of Justice.
"In light of our discussions, for many families, seeking justice through criminal investigations is a greater priority than compensation in addition to accountability at the ICAO and ICJ," Diamond said Sunday.
He said there is a "significant body of evidence" in various reports — including by the families themselves, the government and the United Nations — "which point towards criminal liability of officials at the highest levels for possible atrocity crimes."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 9, 2022.