| by Ruwantissa Abeyratne

( July 31, 2014, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) On Tuesday 29 July the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Airports Council International (ACI) and the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO) met at ICAO's headquarters to address risks to civil aviation arising from conflict zones. The meeting was a direct response to the shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 aircraft operating flight MH 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on 17 July 2014, and carrying 283 passengers and 15 crew. All on board perished.

The four Organizations, in a joint statement issued at the end of the meeting said: " we have met at ICAO today with collective resolve to urgently review the issues and potential responses to be pursued". The statement recognized that in the aftermath of the MH 17 disaster and as a response ICAO had reminded its member States of their responsibilities to address any potential risks to civil aviation in their airspace.

The four parties to the meeting agreed upon the importance of ICAO's work in the context of the subject in urgently working with its member States, in coordination with the aviation industry and other bodies within the United Nations, to ensure "the right information reaches the right people at the right time".

According to the joint statement ICAO has agreed to immediately establish, together with industry partners, a senior level Task Force composed of State and industry experts to address the civil aviation and national security aspects of this challenge, in particular how information can be effectively collected and disseminated. The findings of the task force will be submitted with the greatest urgency to a special meeting of the ICAO Council for action.

ICAO has also been requested (by the industry) to address fail-safe channels for essential threat information to be made available to civil aviation authorities and industry as well as the need to incorporate into international law, through appropriate UN frameworks, measures to govern the design, manufacture and deployment of modern anti-aircraft weaponry.

The entire joint statement boils down to one objective: avoidance of risk through information sharing. A noteworthy feature of the statement is the recognition that ICAO has an important role to play to "ensure" the right threat information reaches the right people at the right time.

How does ICAO ensure the timely dissemination of threat information and to whom should this information be relayed? Since threat information must essentially and exclusively come from States, does the joint statement mean that ICAO should be a mere conduit in transmitting information to its member States?

Risk avoidance has been defined to involve the risk assessment technique that entails eliminating hazards, activities and exposures that place valuable assets at risk. In the case of civil aviation within the context of conflict zones this would mean eliminating hazards by avoiding the airspace over that zone entirely. Unlike risk management, which is calculated to control dangers and risks, risk avoidance totally bypasses a risk. The information to States on threats posed to their civil aviation over conflict zones would therefore have to be disseminated through policy and procedure, training and education and technology implementations.

Therefore firstly, ICAO would have to, with the involvement of industry partners and other relevant players, establish the policy and procedure involved in information sharing. It would also have to consider the best way adequate training and knowledge can be passed on.

The important issue though is not the logistics of establishing a senior level task force. Nor is it to have the task force come up with assessments and recommendations. The critical factor is who in the end "ensures" that the information disseminated is timely and reaches the right people at the right time. In the ultimate analysis, it should be the States themselves and this is already being accomplished through NOTAMs (notices to airmen) issued by the States in accordance with guidelines of ICAO in Annex 15 to the Chicago Convention (Aeronautical Information Services).

The author is of the view that the Joint Statement issued by the key players in international civil aviation, although reflecting a sound approach to the issue, is deficient in not requiring the task force to address the individual role to be played by each international and industry partner and the legal justification and legitimacy of those roles. Without this the Council, although a highly professional and knowledgeable body, would not get the purpose and direction of the thrust of the task force's findings.

If, as the joint statement seemingly requires, ICAO were to ensure disseminating threat information, it would make the Organization go way beyond the basic expectations of its aims and objectives, which is to develop principles and techniques of air navigation. There is also the issue of what is required in the entire process of developing an efficient and effective threat information sharing system. The key players responsible for ensuring the success of this process would have to be given sufficient resources, be able to identify problems early, engage in detailed training and continuous practice, maintain excellent flows of communication, and encourage trust and shared value amongst all concerned.

Drazenovich and Skovira, in an article titled Mitigating Risk in a High Uncertainty Avoidance Culture – Air Traffic Control published in 2010, state that " Open communications and the free flow of shared information should lead to the development of shared mental models of the system, its hazards, and its warning systems. A strong organizational culture and shared values are important..." In order to achieve these objectives, the political will of States is essential and obtaining it collectively will be ICAO's first challenge. The second challenge would be to obtain continuous commitment of all States concerned to treat the issue of safety of flight over conflict areas as their absolute priority.

As for the Industry request contained in the Joint Statement that ICAO address the need to need to incorporate into international law, through appropriate UN frameworks, measures to govern the design, manufacture and deployment of modern anti-aircraft weaponry, One wonders how the request fits within ICAO's aim and objective to develop principles and techniques of air navigation. Perhaps ICAO, IATA, ACI and CANSO should have given this serious thought.

The author is former Senior Legal Officer at the International Civil Aviation Organization