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The Human Face of ICAO


Air transport is not primarily about States. Nor is it about airlines. It is about the old man who carried the ashes of his wife in an urn to her place of origin in an aircraft.







by Dr Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Our work reflects what we do: our lives reflect who we are

( November 21, 2018, Nassau, Sri Lanka Guardian) Most people love to travel. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) – the specialized agency of the United Nations responsible for international civil aviation – has recorded the exponential growth in air travel. In its evaluation of the year 2017, ICAO records that the total number of passengers carried on scheduled services rose to 4.1 billion in 2017, which is 7.2 per cent higher than the previous year, while the number of departures reached 36.7 million in 2017, a 3.1 per cent increase compared to 2016.

In the face of these encouraging figures, one does not pause to think that aircraft may carry, among innocent well-meaning passengers, con men, pick pockets, thieves and vagabonds who may pose a threat to those in the aircraft. Also, it does not occur to us that, in this safest mode of transport, occasionally something can go wrong, plunging us to the depth of darkness. It is when this happens that we begin to wonder who there is to offer us some solace.

When one looks at ICAO, its aims and objectives are to develop principles and techniques of air navigation and to foster the development of air transport, with a subset of the overall objective being to meet the needs of the people of the world for safe, regular, efficient and economical air transport. Nowhere is it stated that ICAO should think of people in distress in an aircraft or give any consideration to those stranded and destitute without their loved ones and providers who have been wiped out in an air disaster.

Yet twenty years ago, ICAO prompted States to think of the victims of air transport: those people who crowded around civil aviation authorities when an aircraft vanished from the skies in 2014. Or those who did not know what to do when their loved ones were blasted out of the sky the same year. The ICAO Assembly, at its 32nd Assembly in October 1998, adopted Resolution A32-7 which stated that ICAO`s policy should be to ensure that the mental, physical and spiritual well-being of aircraft accident victims and their families are considered and accommodated by ICAO and its member States. The Resolution went on to say that it was essential that ICAO and its member States recognize the importance of timely notification of family members of victims involved in aircraft accident, the prompt recovery and accurate identification of the fatalities, the return of the victim’s personal effects and the dissemination of pertinent information to family members. There was recognition that governments of nationals, who are victims of aircraft accidents, have the role of notifying and assisting the families of the victims and that it was essential that support be provided to family members of aircraft accident victims, wherever the accidents may occur, and any lessons learnt from support providers. including effective procedures and policies are promptly disseminated to ICAO and its member States in order to improve states family support operation.

In response to Assembly Resolution A32-7, ICAO issued a circular on Guidance on Assistance to Aircraft Accident Victims and their Families (Cir 285). In 2005, provisions were included in Annex 9 to the Chicago Convention on facilitation of air transport with a view to enabling expeditious entry into a State in which an accident has occurred of family members of the victims of the accident.

In 2013 ICAO published a Manual on assistance to victims of air accidents and their families which stated inter alia that the aim of family assistance is to address the concerns and the needs of the victims and their families, to the extent possible, and to provide them with easily accessible factual information about the progress of the accident investigation. From the onset, survivors and families should be informed of the objective of the investigation, in accordance with accepted principles of accident investigation.

Recently, in October 2018, a special session was held in ICAO during the 13th ICAO Air Navigation Conference to review the development and implementation of the relevant ICAO instruments and documents, and regulations, policies and plans of States and other international organizations. At this session, which was aimed at adding momentum to ICAO’s efforts towards this humanitarian goal, President of the ICAO Council Dr. Benard Aliu stated: “ICAO is attuned to the needs of families and victims of aircraft accidents and stands ready to continue working with the aviation community and family associations towards the progress of this subject of utmost importance.”

On another front, during the first half of 2018, ICAO released Circular 352 - Guidelines for Training Cabin Crew on Identifying and Responding to Trafficking in Persons – containing guidelines calculated to enable members of cabin crews and other transportation personnel to identify possible victims of trafficking and respond to their plight. The Circular was a joint release of ICAO and The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and has been identified by ICAO as a new tool which ensures that civil aviation’s remarkable ability to connect global citizens and societies is not abused by undesirable elements of humanity that prey on vulnerable humans, exploiting them for economic gain.

The purpose of the Circular is to encourage States to sensitize their civil aviation authorities to the enormity of the problem of human trafficking and the challenges it poses to civil aviation, and to require the civil aviation authorities of ICAO member States to require air operators develop policies, procedures, training and guidance for their employees, primarily to raise awareness on trafficking in persons and secondly to prepare them with appropriate responses in instances of suspected human trafficking by air transport.

Air transport is not primarily about States. Nor is it about airlines. It is about the old man who carried the ashes of his wife in an urn to her place of origin in an aircraft. It is about an old woman who discovers, after dinner has been served and the lights dimmed, that her husband of 45 years had gently passed away into the night in the seat next to her. It is when the ultimate in technology meshes gently with humanity.

With these two initiatives, ICAO has shown the courage and humanity to introduce a shift in the rigours of public international air law from the interests of States and airlines to the most important interest of civil aviation – the passenger – justifying the point of view of one commentator: that the primary interests of the law should be that of the universal community through a common law of mankind.




The author, who is former Senior Legal Officer of ICAO, is currently Senior Associate, Air Law and Policy at Aviation Strategies International, a consultancy headquartered in Montreal, having branches around the world. He has written this article while on mission in Nassau, The Bahamas.

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