Midday, Thursday July 17, 2014. 283 passengers and 15 staff board Malaysia flight 17 in Amsterdam for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. At 12:15 pm, the pilot calls for the crew to prepare for takeoff, the tray tables to be stowed and seats to be returned to their upright positions. Men, women and children settle in for the journey, reading or rifling last-minute through their Instagram accounts as safety instructions flicker on automated screens. Three hours into the flight, lunch has been served, the stewards battling a mess of ripped clear plastic wrappers, used food containers and half-eaten bread rolls. Shortly after, the Boeing 777 is hit out of the sky over eastern Ukraine. The wreckage lands 40 kilometers away from the Ukraine-Russian border, in Torez, Donetsk Oblast. No one survives.
International condemnation came fast after the tragic event. A Dutch-led investigation was launched, along with attempts to retrieve the bodies. With 27 Australians killed, Canberra deployed its Federal Police to aid the investigation, the largest Australian personnel deployment since the 2004 tsunami disaster or the 2002 Bali bombing.
But the joint investigation did not yield results very quickly. Local looting was rampant, and access to the site restricted by rebels. The only credible attribution for the downing is a Russian-made Buk 332, a medium-range surface-to-air missile system, believed to have been fired from rebel-controlled areas before moving into Russian territory. Who shot the Buk remains unknown, although the investigation team has identified suspects. Russia has widely been held responsible.
A Classic Stalemate
How far have we come in three years? The MH17 tragedy brought the world’s attention to Ukraine in a way the Crimean annexation did not. It cemented the sanctions regimes against Russia and its isolation in the international community. Since then, two successive Minsk agreements have pushed for the cessation of hostilities between Ukrainian rebels and the Ukrainian government.
But the Minsk II agreement is unlikely to ever get off the ground. The Ukrainian government in particular lacks the political appetite to implement it. President Petro Poroshenko is still unable to convince parliament to support the deal—partly because this would involve passing a resolution that allows Donetsk and Luhansk regions to hold local elections, essentially granting them de facto autonomy. But under Article 9 of Minsk II, Kiev had agreed to hold elections only after it established territorial control of the Ukraine–Russia border, a rebel stronghold. But this is a concession the separatists are unwilling to make because it would cut their access to trade routes, supplies, personnel and funding. It remains a deadlock.
A Just Future
The ongoing murkiness of the Ukraine conflict has hampered the ability of investigators and families to receive any justice. Whether a trial will ever happen is unclear. The investigation team still hasn’t obtained evidence required for the investigation. The Dutch government has criticized Ukraine for refusing to hand over primary radar data. An attempt to hold a United Nations tribunal in 2015 was vetoed by Russia. Russia’s then-UN envoy, Vitaliy Churkin, said his country was against the tribunal, which he believed would be carried out in a “closed fashion.” He also noted that Russian investigators had been denied equal access to the crash site, so the investigation would be biased. Churkin’s proposed alternative solution—a full international investigation instead of a tribunal—was ignored.
The downing of MH17 has turned from a tragedy into a political standpoint. Discussions about the event inevitably turn into debates about the Ukrainian conflict and Russia’s involvement in it. These conversations are inherently tied to sanctions, Minsk agreements and the domestic situations in Ukraine, Russia and even the domestic appetite in the U.S. Moscow and Kiev expend their energy slinging mud at each other. Meanwhile, the victims of MH17 have long been forgotten by mainstream media, overshadowed by the conflict at large.
The investigation team may still choose to hold a trial in the Netherlands; there is hope that even if no suspects are present, a trial will expose the full extent of the evidence, and victims’ families can begin to get closure. However, justice will only be served once the Ukraine conflict is over, when it is not possible for combatants to disappear into the shadows, or for events such as MH17 to be used as political leverage.
Every day, relatives of MH17 victims continue searching online to discover if any new evidence has been found or any questions answered. In the words of Evert van Zijtveld, who lost two teenage children in the crash: “Our loved ones have been murdered, and the killers are walking free somewhere in the world. They have to be arrested, they have to appear in a court of law and they have to be punished.”