Bad precedents can be contagious. The world witnessed one on Sunday involving a commercial airline. A Ryanair flight from Athens, Greece, was headed towards Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital. The route involved flying over Belarus which shares a border with Lithuania. What’s clear is that while the plane was in Belarus airspace, the country’s ATC notified it of a potential security threat. It was diverted to Minsk in Belarus. The threat turned out to be false and when the jet was allowed to fly out a few hours later, not all passengers were on board.
Roman Protasevich, a journalist from Belarus and a critic of the country’s regime who has been living in exile for a couple of years, had been detained. It was an extraordinary sequence of events which led to strong reactions. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, termed it a “hijacking”. The US government said the flight’s diversion was forced. There’s a political context. President Aleksander Lukashenko of Belarus has been in office since 1994. His victory in last year’s election was controversial, with the opposition accusing him of rigging it. EU had imposed sanctions following the election.
The crucial fact is that the diversion of a commercial flight resulted in Protasevich being detained. Whatever the charges against him in Belarus, this sets a precedent on what state actors can do. International commercial air travel is guided by the Chicago Convention. It’s one of the many frameworks that make international cooperation for collective gain possible. If state actors begin to sidestep these frameworks in pursuit of domestic goals, it will undermine a rules-based international order. If Sunday’s action has no consequence, there is little to prevent another such incident. The last two decades have seen big powers follow the path of unilateralism when it suits them. That’s been contagious.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.
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