1) ICAO was formed in the early days of international civil aviation
World War II was a time of rapid developments in aviation technology. Towards the end of the conflict, in 1944, in anticipation of the growing popularity of civil air and cargo transportation, the US government invited delegates from allied states to Chicago to draft the first International Civil Aviation Convention, commonly known as “Chicago Convention “.
The main 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 managed in a healthy and economic way”.
In 1947, ICAO was established as a United Nations Specialized Agency to organize and support the intense international cooperation that the nascent global air transport network would require. It is headquartered in Montreal, Canada.
2) Today, the agency ensures the smooth functioning of the global network …
The international air transport network, the agency says, is one of the prime practical examples of international cooperation, but ensuring the network works means making sure everyone follows the same rules. This remains the key role of ICAO.
The agency seeks new air transport policies and standardization innovations; organizes events to explore the latest developments in this area; and advises governments on setting new international standards and recommended practices for civil aviation.
It also conducts educational outreach activities, develops coalitions, and conducts auditing, training and capacity building activities around the world.
3)… but does not watch the skies
Like the UN as a whole, ICAO’s strength lies in its ability to bring together a large number of countries, to make international agreements. However, it is not a global regulator and does not have the power to oversee the skies.
ICAO cannot arbitrarily close or restrict a country’s airspace, close routes or condemn airports or airlines for poor safety performance or customer service. Countries set their own regulations, which air operators must follow when entering national airspace and airports.
If a country violates standards that have been agreed and adopted internationally through ICAO, the agency’s role is to help countries find a coordinated response, such as this week’s incident.
Unsplash / Fotis Christopoulos
4) ICAO “deeply concerned” about the accident in Belarus …
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 a high-profile opposition journalist, Roman Protasevich.
There followed a chorus of condemnation from nations, rights organizations and the United Nations system: the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, expressed his deep concern, and called for a full and independent investigation, and the spokesperson for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) She said that the way Mr. Protasevich was kidnapped and taken to Belarus “was equivalent to an extraordinary rendition”.
ICAO responded by post a Tweet, on the day of the incident, in which the organization noted that it was “deeply concerned about the apparent forced landing of a Ryanair flight and its passengers, which could violate the Chicago Convention.” One day later, the agency announced, also on Twitter, an urgent meeting of the ICAO Council on May 27.
5)… but what can it do?
It is not the first time that a plane has been forcibly diverted from its destination, but some experts believe this is the first time that ICAO has had to discuss allegations that one of its member states is responsible for such an accident.
Belarus, meanwhile, was insisting that the diversion was necessary due to a threat of explosion and denounced the condemnation of the incident as a planned provocation.
It is possible that the urgent ICAO meeting will lead to the “full and independent investigation” requested by the Secretary General but, as previously mentioned, the agency is not a global regulator and does not have the power to act against Belarus, like the closure of the country’s airspace or any other sanctions.
Meanwhile, 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 it is considering “appropriate options”.