United we stand

The pain and chaos that consumed the days after Malaysia Airlines flight 17 was shot down by Russian separatists over Ukraine is hard to overstate.

First came the accusations levelled against the rebels: that they were tampering with the bodies of the dead at the crash site, attempting to hide the evidence of their crime. In Donetsk, under heavily armed escort, a Malaysian delegation made its way to meet the separatist rebel leaders, hoping to barter for the plane’s black box.

Fighting broke out on the streets once more, shells rained down. The world’s media knocked on the doors of the victims’ families, looking for answers from people who had none.

At the crash site, European monitors urged the rebels to move faster, to load the passengers’ remains onto the train that waited to carry them to investigators. “This train must move today, it cannot wait any longer,” one official was overheard saying. “It will not be good for anyone – not the experts, not the families, not you.”

Finally, the train pulled out. The black box was handed over. A ceasefire was declared. And Julie Bishop stood to address the United Nations Security Council:

“Thank you, Mr President. The adoption of this resolution is a decisive step by the security council. It is an unambiguous response from the international community to an utterly deplorable act – the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, killing all 298 passengers and crew on board, including 80 children. The passengers were citizens of Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Philippines and the United Kingdom. These governments have all co-sponsored this resolution today. For that I am deeply grateful.”

Many at the time saw Australia’s response to the shooting down of MH17 as evidence of Tony Abbott’s potential statesmanship. History has shown it to be a triumph of Bishop’s diplomacy. And it remains a vital reminder of the role organisations such as the UN can, and should, still play in our grand bargain.

In the years since MH17, many have turned away from these intergovernmental pacts. Some with good reason – developing nations abused and ignored for decades. But many wealthy and powerful countries have recoiled from a place of nationalism and fear. In a speech to the UN last year, Donald Trump rejected globalism entirely. “America is governed by Americans,” he said. “We embrace the doctrine of patriotism.”

And yet, this week, we finally have names. Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinskiy, Oleg Pulatov and Leonid Kharchenko. All four men stand accused of murder and will be prosecuted in absentia next year. There is little chance, of course, they will ever be extradited from their homes in Russia and Ukraine. So, this is the justice we must accept. This is the limit of diplomatic powers.

But without them – without co-operation, pressure, compromise and alliances – we may never have got these names. We likely never would have gained access to the crash site in the first place. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 22, 2019 as "United we stand".

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