| by Ruwantissa Abeyratne

( July 26, 2014, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) In a recent press release issued by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in the aftermath of Flight MH 17, it is said: "ICAO is also consulting with IATA and regional aviation organizations on the respective roles of states, airlines and international organizations for assessing the risk of airspace affected by armed conflict." Whoever drafted this might have to go back to basic books on terminology. There is no such thing as " risk of airspace". The statement should have read : "risk of danger in airspace affected by armed conflict". Be that as it may, it is understood that in many circles (including the erudite press corps) people are claiming that ICAO should have issued an advisory on the air space above Eastern Europe and the lapse of ICAO is to be blamed for the disaster that befell Flight MH 17. This is absolutely wrong.

To address this issue, one has to have a clear understanding of what ICAO is. It is a specialized agency of the United Nations, very much like the World Health Organization (WHO) or the International Labour Organization (ILO). On a comparison however, ICAO stands out, mainly due to its own ineptitude and hesitation in taking a leading role in its activities. the World Bank assembles record funding to reduce poverty. The World Health Organization (WHO) is the directing and coordinating authority for health within the United Nations system. It is responsible for providing leadership on global health matters, shaping the health research agenda, setting norms and standards, articulating evidence-based policy options, providing technical support to countries and monitoring and assessing health trends. The International Labour Organization (ILO) is the international organization responsible for drawing up and overseeing international labour standards. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is the United Nations specialized agency with responsibility for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution by ships.

The word “responsibility” does not occur anywhere in ICAO’s mission in air transport, as it does in other specialized agencies of the United Nations. In its web page ICAO identifies itself as a specialized agency of the United Nations which promotes the safe and orderly development of international civil aviation throughout the world. It sets standards and regulations necessary for aviation safety, security, efficiency and regularity, as well as for aviation environmental protection. Its mission is to be the global forum for civil aviation - in other words, a meeting place. Its only task is to achieve safe, secure and sustainable development of civil aviation through the cooperation of its Member States .Again, in other words, ICAO is but an interlocutor (someone who takes part in a conversation) in global air transport, and if States do not cooperate in a particular issue, ICAO is destitute of the ability to show direction and persuade its members to follow it.

According to the Convention on International Civil Aviation (Chicago Convention) ICAO has aims and objectives: not a mandate or authority. Article 44 of the Convention provides that ICAO's aims and objectives are to develop the principles and techniques of air navigation so as to ensure that the needs of the people of the world for safe, regular, economic and efficient air transport are met. ICAO's role therefore, in ensuring safety is related to developing principles and techniques of air navigation: not operational monitoring of safety. ICAO is by nature not an operational Organization. Its mission is "to serve as the global forum of States for international civil aviation by developing policies and standards, undertaking compliance audits and analyses, providing assistance and building aviation capacity through many other activities and the cooperation of member States and stakeholders." None of these elements has any link to providing advisories on which airspace to traverse based on politics and warfare. Of course, one can stretch " provides assistance..in many other activities" to ascribe to ICAO an advisory function and a monitoring function. However, since the latter requires sophisticated technical capability and a certain political autonomy which ICAO by nature does not possess, it would a stretch. Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) are issued by States advising the technical crew of an aircraft which routes to avoid. These NOTAMs are developed under guidelines contained in Annex 15 (Aeronautical Information Services) to the Chicago Convention. Herein lies ICAO's true function - of issuing guidelines.

ICAO operates on what is called the doctrine of empowerment at international law. That is to say that States can empower ICAO to do anything in the context of international civil aviation. However, in doing this, in enabling ICAO to monitor international fights for their safety, member States of the Organization may have to change wording of legal texts, ICAO's mission and its mindset. Above all, they would have to replenish ICAO's meagre budget under which the Organization is already creaking.

This would require absolute cooperation of States and the wisdom of the Council of ICAO.