1) ICAO was set up at the dawn of international civil aviation
The Second World War was a period of rapid developments in aircraft technology. Towards the end of the conflict, in 1944, in anticipation of the growing popularity of civilian and freight air travel, the US Government invited delegates from allied states to Chicago to thrash out the first international Convention on Civil Aviation, commonly known as the “Chicago Convention”.
The prime objective of this document is the development of international civil aviation “in a safe and orderly manner”, and the establishment of air transport services “on the basis of equality of opportunity and operated soundly and economically.”
In 1947, ICAO was set up as a UN Specialized Agency, to organize and support the intensive international co-operation which the fledgling global air transport network would require. It is based in Montreal, Canada.
2) Today, the agency ensures the smooth running of the global network…
The international air transport network, says the agency, is one of the greatest practical examples of international cooperation, but ensuring the network functions, means making sure that everyone is following the same rules. This remains ICAO’s key role.
The agency researches new air transport policy, and standardization innovations; holds events to explore the latest developments in this area; and provides governments with advice on establishing new international standards and recommended practices for civil aviation.
It also conducts educational outreach, develops coalitions, and conducts auditing, training, and capacity building activities worldwide.
3) …but it does not police the skies
Like the UN as a whole, the strength of ICAO lies in its ability to bring together large numbers of countries, to forge international agreements. However, it is not a global regulator, and has no power to police the skies.
ICAO cannot arbitrarily close or restrict a country’s airspace, shut down routes, or condemn airports or airlines for poor safety performance or customer service. Countries make their own regulations, which airline operators must follow when they enter national airspace and airports.
If a country does breach standards that have been internationally agreed and adopted through ICAO, the agency’s role is to help countries to come up with a coordinated response, such as this week’s incident.
4) ICAO ‘strongly concerned’ by the Belarus incident…
On Sunday, 23 May, a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was reportedly diverted to Minsk airport, where several passengers were forced off the plane, including high-profile opposition journalist, Roman Protasevich.
A chorus of condemnation from nations, rights organisations and the UN system followed: the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, expressed his deep concern, and called for a full, independent investigation, and the spokesperson for the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR) said that the manner in which Mr. Protasevich was abducted, and brought to Belarus, “was tantamount to an extraordinary rendition”.
ICAO responded by publishing a Tweet, on the day of the incident, in which the organisation noted that it was “strongly concerned by the apparent forced landing of a Ryanair flight and its passengers, which could be in contravention of the Chicago Convention.” A day later, the agency announced, again on Twitter, an urgent meeting of the ICAO Council on 27 May.
5) …but what can it do?
This is far from the first time that a plane has been diverted from its destination by force, but some experts believe that this is the first time that ICAO has had to discuss allegations that one of its own Member States has been responsible for such an incident.
Belarus, meanwhile, is reportedly insisting that the diversion was necessary due to a bomb threat, and has denounced condemnation of the incident as a planned provocation.
It is possible that the urgent ICAO meeting leads to the “full, independent investigation” that the Secretary-General is calling for but, as mentioned above, the agency is not a global regulator, and does not have the power to take action against Belarus, such as shutting down the country’s airspace, or any other sanction.
In the meantime, European Union leaders have announced economic sanctions and plans to ban Belarusian airlines from European airspace and airports. These moves have been welcomed by the United States, where the Biden administration says that it is assessing “appropriate options”.