Canada among 4 countries launching effort to hold Iran accountable for shooting down Flight PS752

Families of the victims of Flight PS752 are hopeful an international legal effort to hold Iran accountable will bring truth and justice, but experts warn the process will likely take years.

Governments demand Iran participate in binding arbitration process

A woman places a flower at a vigil for the victims of Flight PS752 in Toronto on Jan. 8, two years after the plane was shot down. Canada, Sweden, Ukraine and the U.K. have requested that Iran submit to binding arbitration as the next step in a process to hold its regime accountable. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Canada, Sweden, Ukraine and the United Kingdom have formally triggered a process to hold Iran legally accountable for shooting down Flight PS752, nearly three years after 176 people died on board the downed passenger plane.

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down the Ukraine International Airlines flight shortly after takeoff in Tehran on Jan. 8, 2020. Two surface-to-air missiles hit the plane, killing all on board — including 55 Canadian citizens, 30 permanent residents and others with ties to Canada.

On Wednesday, the International Coordination and Response Group, which was formed to coordinate efforts to seek accountability and reparations over the plane's downing, announced that ministers from Canada, Sweden, Ukraine and the U.K. had requested Iran's regime submit to binding arbitration under an international dispute resolution process governed by the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Civil Aviation.

The convention requires parties to prohibit, prevent and punish certain offences involving aircraft, including the unlawful and intentional destruction of an aircraft in service. Canada, Sweden, Ukraine, the U.K. and Iran are all parties to the convention, which was signed in Montreal in 1971.

If the countries can't agree to terms for arbitration within six months, the case can be taken to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Previous efforts to get Iran to participate in negotiations over reparations for Flight PS752 have failed.

The families of the victims of Flight PS752 began their fight for compensation in 2020. Earlier this year, an Ontario court awarded them $107 million, but lawyers warned that actually getting Iran to pay the damages would be very difficult.

People dressed in black hold signs, each with one person's face and name on them, while walking in a line down a street.
People hold placards with images of the victims of Flight PS752 during a march in Toronto on Jan. 8, 2021, marking the first anniversary of the plane's downing. The victims' families have been fighting for truth and justice for nearly three years. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

Families hope for truth, justice 

Hamed Esmaeilion, who lost his wife and daughter on PS752, said he and other victims' families are thankful the binding arbitration process has been launched, but they are not confident Iran will co-operate. 

"It was a long campaign for us but we're very happy now that we have a roadmap ahead of us, and the truth will come out one day, and I think the day that the truth is out, justice will be served, too," Esmaeilion told CBC News, speaking on behalf of the Association of the Families of Flight PS752 Victims.

"It was a very horrific crime that they have committed ... This [international legal process] is important for the community and the wounds of the community to be healed."

WATCH | Families hope for truth, justice from legal process against Iran:

Families of Flight PS752 victims hope for truth, justice from legal process

3 months ago
Duration 0:53
Hamed Esmaeilion, who lost his wife and daughter on Flight PS752, says victims' families anticipate the International Court of Justice will eventually hold Iran accountable for shooting down the passenger plane.

Kaveh Shahrooz, a lawyer and senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute who has been providing legal advice to the victims' families, says Iran has so far refused to provide information to the victims' countries about the circumstances surrounding the plane's downing.

"My expectation is that Iran will not play ball when it comes to arbitration, that it will not be forthcoming with information about responsibility and other sorts of necessary information that the parties need to analyze what happened," he said, adding that he believed it was likely the dispute would end up before the ICJ.

CBC News has reached out to Iran's foreign ministry for comment.

Long process ahead

The next steps will depend on whether Iran agrees to participate in arbitration. Typically, international arbitration is overseen by a three-member panel, with the claimant and respondent sides each choosing one member, and the third member acting as chair or president.

If the two sides can't agree on panel members or other details by June 28, any of the countries involved can take the case to the ICJ. If that happens, Iran could again decide whether or not to participate, but the court could proceed with the case either way.

Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corp fired two surface-to-air missiles at Flight PS752, killing all 176 people on board on Jan, 8, 2020. (Social media video via Reuters)

"[In] the vast, vast majority of cases, respondent countries do show up [to the ICJ]," says Catherine Amirfar, a lawyer and co-chair of the International Dispute Resolution Group of Debevoise & Plimpton, who has appeared as counsel before the ICJ.

"It's a very profound thing, to fail to respond in a dispute where the country has agreed, as Iran did here under the Montreal Convention, to a certain dispute resolution procedure."

Either the arbitral panel or the ICJ could order remedies and compensation, if they found Iran responsible for downing flight PS752.

But either legal route "typically takes years" to reach a conclusion, Amirfar says.

Shahrooz said while the case may eventually bring reparations for the victims' families, their main hope is that those responsible for downing the plane are identified, and that Iran will be "forced to hand over documents and other information that will get us closer to the truth."

"If Iran loses, it will be a clear sign to the world that they have refused to provide the truth," he said. "It will be a recognition that Iran has not held the right parties accountable for this crime. This is really what the families have been pushing for."

A woman in a black parka stretches her right hand out to touch a large boulder with a plaque on it that reads "PS752" and "08.01.2020".
A woman attends a commemorative ceremony in Kyiv on Jan. 8, on the second anniversary of PS752's downing. The plane was operated by Ukraine International Airlines. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)


Laura McQuillan is an online journalist with CBC News in Toronto. She covers general news, social issues and science and has a special interest in finding unexpected answers to unusual questions. Laura previously reported from New Zealand and Brazil.

With files from CBC's Marina von Stackelberg, Nahayat Tizhoosh and Ashley Burke