I was a former Australian Ambassador. I worked in a number of countries including as Ambassador to Turkey, Lebanon and Poland where I was also accredited to Ukraine.
I thought you might be interested in one of the major crises I dealt with during my career.
On 17 July 2014 Malaysian Airlines 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine. Together with Sir Angus Houston, we led Australia’s response to the disaster.
All 298 passengers were killed in the downing of the aircraft. The plane originated in the Netherlands, and most of the passengers were Dutch nationals. Those killed included 28 Australians and nine permanent residents. The international media quickly speculated that the plane had been shot down by a missile. At the time, Russian-backed rebels were conducting a war against the Ukrainian government in the region of the disaster.
I arrived in Kyiv around 11pm on the evening of the shooting down of MH17. I had just flown back into Warsaw from Australia earlier that afternoon and immediately caught the next flight to Kyiv.
On behalf of the Australian government, my objectives were: to support the families of the Australian passengers; to do whatever it took to collect the human remains from the crash site with dignity; to repatriate the remains to the Hague for identification; and to assist in finding out how the crash had happened, with a view to the international community eventually holding those responsible to account.
For five weeks I worked in Kyiv on the disaster, with a large crisis management team from a range of Australian federal agencies. For the duration of this time, the team leadership had no more than four hours sleep a night and usually less.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting down, the primary focus of the team was to gain access to the crash site to recover the remains.
Our problem was that the territory of the crash site was under the control of the Russian-backed rebels. It was a dangerous location in which to operate.
With the assistance of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which was coincidentally in Ukraine at the time to try to resolve the war in the east of the country, we gained access to the crash site for the Australian Federal Police (AFP). Some of the remains had been collected by local emergency authorities under the command of the rebels and were held in train wagons at a nearby station.
We eventually secured permission for the AFP to enter the crash site, but it was risky work as they often had to withdraw because of gunfire.
We also gained access to the train wagons holding some of the remains. I met the train on arrival at a location near the city of Kharkiv in the northeast of Ukraine, and farewelled the plane carrying the remains from Kharkiv to the Hague.
The Dutch accident investigation found that the cause of the crash was a BUK missile. A subsequent Joint Investigation Team including Australian, Dutch and Malaysian investigators found that the BUK missile belonged to a Russian anti-aircraft missile brigade. Australia and the Netherlands asserted Russia’s responsibility under international law for the downing of MH17. Russia has rejected any responsibility.
The Dutch Public Prosecution Service prosecuted four suspects with murder: three Russians and one Ukrainian. The Dutch have commenced a trial of the four in absentia.
I completed my assignment in Poland and Ukraine in early 2016. The crisis remains etched on my mind, and not least the tragic loss of lives. This was a terrible tragedy with a geostrategic overlay which made the management of the crisis especially difficult.
Ukraine is a vast and beautiful country, with grand cities like its capital, Kyiv, and Lviv in the west. If you have a chance to visit Ukraine, you will marvel at the magnificent churches of Kyiv.
St Andrew’s Church, Kyiv