Canada among 4 countries launching effort to hold Iran accountable for shooting down Flight PS752

A woman places a flower at a vigil for the victims of Flight PS752 in Toronto on Jan. 8, two years after the plane was shot down. Canada, Sweden, Ukraine and the U.K. have requested that Iran submit to binding arbitration as the next step in a process to hold its regime accountable. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press - image credit)
A woman places a flower at a vigil for the victims of Flight PS752 in Toronto on Jan. 8, two years after the plane was shot down. Canada, Sweden, Ukraine and the U.K. have requested that Iran submit to binding arbitration as the next step in a process to hold its regime accountable. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Canada, Sweden, Ukraine and the United Kingdom have formally triggered a process to hold Iran legally accountable for shooting down Flight PS752, nearly three years after 176 people died on board the downed passenger plane.

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down the Ukraine International Airlines flight shortly after takeoff in Tehran on Jan. 8, 2020. Two surface-to-air missiles hit the plane, killing all on board — including 55 Canadian citizens, 30 permanent residents and others with ties to Canada.

On Wednesday, the International Coordination and Response Group, which was formed to coordinate efforts to seek accountability and reparations over the plane's downing, announced that ministers from Canada, Sweden, Ukraine and the U.K. had requested Iran's regime submit to binding arbitration under an international dispute resolution process governed by the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Civil Aviation.

The convention requires parties to prohibit, prevent and punish certain offences involving aircraft, including the unlawful and intentional destruction of an aircraft in service. Canada, Sweden, Ukraine, the U.K. and Iran are all parties to the convention, which was signed in Montreal in 1971.

If the countries can't agree to terms for arbitration within six months, the case can be taken to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Previous efforts to get Iran to participate in negotiations over reparations for Flight PS752 have failed.

The families of the victims of Flight PS752 began their fight for compensation in 2020. Earlier this year, an Ontario court awarded them $107 million, but lawyers warned that actually getting Iran to pay the damages would be very difficult.

Carlos Osorio/Reuters
Carlos Osorio/Reuters

Families hope for truth, justice 

Hamed Esmaeilion, who lost his wife and daughter on PS752, said he and other victims' families are thankful the binding arbitration process has been launched, but they are not confident Iran will co-operate.

"It was a long campaign for us but we're very happy now that we have a roadmap ahead of us, and the truth will come out one day, and I think the day that the truth is out, justice will be served, too," Esmaeilion told CBC News, speaking on behalf of the Association of the Families of Flight PS752 Victims.

"It was a very horrific crime that they have committed ... This [international legal process] is important for the community and the wounds of the community to be healed."

WATCH | Families hope for truth, justice from legal process against Iran:

Kaveh Shahrooz, a lawyer and senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute who has been providing legal advice to the victims' families, says Iran has so far refused to provide information to the victims' countries about the circumstances surrounding the plane's downing.

"My expectation is that Iran will not play ball when it comes to arbitration, that it will not be forthcoming with information about responsibility and other sorts of necessary information that the parties need to analyze what happened," he said, adding that he believed it was likely the dispute would end up before the ICJ.

CBC News has reached out to Iran's foreign ministry for comment.

Long process ahead

The next steps will depend on whether Iran agrees to participate in arbitration. Typically, international arbitration is overseen by a three-member panel, with the claimant and respondent sides each choosing one member, and the third member acting as chair or president.

If the two sides can't agree on panel members or other details by May 28, any of the countries involved can take the case to the ICJ. If that happens, Iran could again decide whether or not to participate, but the court could proceed with the case either way.

Social media video via Reuters
Social media video via Reuters

"[In] the vast, vast majority of cases, respondent countries do show up [to the ICJ]," says Catherine Amirfar, a lawyer and co-chair of the International Dispute Resolution Group of Debevoise & Plimpton, who has appeared as counsel before the ICJ.

"It's a very profound thing, to fail to respond in a dispute where the country has agreed, as Iran did here under the Montreal Convention, to a certain dispute resolution procedure."

Either the arbitral panel or the ICJ could order remedies and compensation, if they found Iran responsible for downing flight PS752.

But either legal route "typically takes years" to reach a conclusion, Amirfar says.

Shahrooz said while the case may eventually bring reparations for the victims' families, their main hope is that those responsible for downing the plane are identified, and that Iran will be "forced to hand over documents and other information that will get us closer to the truth."

"If Iran loses, it will be a clear sign to the world that they have refused to provide the truth," he said. "It will be a recognition that Iran has not held the right parties accountable for this crime. This is really what the families have been pushing for."

Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters
Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters