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What MH17 has taught us about international disaster investigations

For the Dutch Safety Board (DSB), the investigation into the MH17 plane crash was unprecedented in scope. It wasn’t easy, but it provided valuable lessons for international disaster investigations, says Sanneke Kuipers, a crisis expert from the Institute of Security and Global Affairs.

Lesson 1: Be aware of a potential ‘organisational jam’

‘In 2014, the DBS had a staff of around 70, so when MH17 was shot down it suddenly found itself facing an immense task. It had to investigate a plane crash with many Dutch victims, and what is more, a crash that had happened in an active conflict zone. Added to that, the victims came from different countries and the conclusion of the investigation might have major geopolitical implications. Quite simply, this was something that the organisation was not prepared for. The investigation would require almost 250 people. All other investigations had to be postponed and many outside experts had to be hired in. This makes it important for safety boards – also ones abroad – to appreciate that a major incident can happen at any moment: so keep in touch with external experts.’

Suspects in court

Flight MH17 was shot down from the airspace above the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine on 17 July 2014. All 298 passengers died; 196 of them were Dutch. The investigation concluded that the aircraft had been shot down by a Russian-made Buk missile. The trial of four men – three Russians and a pro-Russian Ukrainian – accused of downing the flight begins in the Netherlands on 9 March.

Lesson 2: Do not rule out any hypothesis

‘Many other investigations into major disasters or attacks have been generally conducted behind the scenes. That enables the investigators to work in peace, but can also feed conspiracy theories. The DSB decided to take a different approach, deciding to work as transparently as possible and to investigate all possible explanations, even if these did not appear plausible in the least. Had the plane been shot down? And if so, could the Ukrainian army have been the culprit rather than the pro-Russian rebels? No single alternative hypothesis, how improbable it may have seemed, was summarily rejected. The DSB only rejected hypotheses if there were sufficient grounds to do so. That significantly increased public confidence in the investigation.’

Lesson 3: Employ a clear communication strategy

‘The DSB endeavoured to find answers for the relatives of the victims as quickly as possible, so it set an ambitious deadline for the investigation. This placed the organisation under pressure but gave the impression that no expense was being spared to discover what had happened. A good example of this is how the MH17 cockpit was reconstructed from the debris found in Ukraine. This meant the whole world could see how the missile had struck. It was a unique and expensive reconstruction but a good showcase for future large-scale investigations. Sceptics and the relatives of victims could rest assured that the research organisation had done all it possibly can.’

Text: Merijn van Nuland
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This interview is based on an article that Sanneke Kuipers recently wrote with Ellen Verolme and Erwin Muller, both of whom used to work for the DSB. Erwin Muller is Dean of the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs. The article will be published in the Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management this year.

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