MH17 crash and the ethics of arms sales

On Tuesday, the Dutch Safety Board released a report suggesting that a missile warhead was responsible for the crash of Malaysia Flight 17 over Donetsk, Ukraine, in July 2014. Everyone on board was killed.

Russians and pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine deny allegations that they are to blame; instead, they accuse the Ukrainians. Both sides keep pointing fingers at one another.

It’s very possible that this tragedy is the result of highly capable weapons landing in the hands of those who are not adequately trained to use them, or worse, when systems that should have available safety mechanisms were sold without them.

Think of it this way: Would you give a scalpel to a novice and ask her to perform brain surgery? Or rely on a first year law student to win a murder prosecution? Or give a youngster a driver’s license without first giving him a driving test? No.

So it would be very reasonable to ask why would a military power give lethal military weapons to others without first requiring a demonstration of proficiency in their use?

It seems the arms purveyors of the world may be doing just that.

The United States and Russia alone make up over 60% of all arms sales worldwide, with France, China, Germany, Italy and others accounting for the rest. Sadly, developing nations, which can least afford them or have questionable governments, are often the biggest recipients. This trend of nations with large, powerful militaries and significant defense industries exporting arms around the world has been with us for a long time and is not likely to change.

But it should be incumbent on the sellers of the systems, many of them lethal, to also export the knowledge and capabilities — and, pray tell — the ethical behavior necessary for their correct use.

It is possible that the deadly anti-aircraft system Buk, which shot down the plane, was sold or given to Russian separatists operating in Ukraine. Operating without radars that would interrogate an inbound aircraft for a civilian code or allowing poorly trained soldiers to override these safety devices was, to say the least, unethical.

If that’s the case, the horrific downing of a civilian airliner represents a violation of these established codes of conduct and also demonstrates extreme negligence on the part of the perpetrators in not attempting to spare the lives of innocents in the conflict.

Professional militaries such as those of the United States and Russia attempt to hew to the so-called Laws of Armed Conflict, informed by centuries old Just War Traditions. These call for soldiers, who have very special authorities to be able to kill other soldiers in battle, to make extraordinary efforts to spare the lives of innocents. They must practice noncombatant distinction, and only use force necessary to achieve a legitimate military objective.

It is also accepted in these rules of war that innocents will be killed and that, as long as all reasonable efforts are made to avoid their death, they are considered legitimate under the doctrine of “double effect.”

But the innocent people who were killed were not even citizens of the two warring sides and could not remotely be said to have been victims in the sense of “double effect.”

There will continue to be arguments about Russia’s role in the Ukraine and maybe even arguments about who pulled the trigger on this fearsome weapon. Those are arguments for investigators, world leaders and politicians.

What should be considered is the responsibility of proliferating countries to ensure that they have done all in their power to keep the weapons they sell from being turned on innocent people.

To ignore this responsibility diminishes the professional stature of the responsible military and the country it represents. It is not only negligent, it is heartbreaking.

Maj. Gen. Robert Latiff teaches the ethics of emerging weapons technologies at the University of Notre Dame. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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