Outrage as Belarus accused of hijacking plane

Torture fears: 26-year-old Roman Protasevich (above) was taken from the Ryanair plane. © Getty

Was the Ryanair hijacking an act of war? Today world leaders are discussing how to respond to the shock grounding of a passenger flight on the orders of the Belarusian president.

When we are flying, it can feel as if we have left all the world’s problems far below us. Looking down from 30,000 feet, it seems there is no such thing as conflict, states or borders.

But every so often, something happens to remind us that even up in the sky, we are still vulnerable to politics. In 2014, it was the shooting down of Flight MH17 over Ukraine, killing everyone on board. In January last year, Iran shot down a passenger plane during tensions with the USA.

And on Sunday, another reminder came when President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus forcibly rerouted a flight heading for Vilnius to the Belarusian capital of Minsk.

On the plane was journalist Roman Protasevich, who was instrumental in organising the protests against Lukashenko during presidential elections last year. Since then, he has been living in exile in Lithuania.

The plane, with its more than 120 passengers, was held for seven hours before it was allowed to continue to Vilnius – minus Protasevich, who had been abducted from the plane and taken into custody.

He faces charges of inciting hatred and mass disorder, which could carry a sentence of up to 12 years in prison. Some suggest he might even face the death penalty.

The move sparked outrage amongst Western leaders, who met yesterday to coordinate their response. It is the first time any government has forced a civilian flight to land for political reasons. And since Lithuania is a Nato member, the repercussions could be wide-ranging.

Some say the grounding of the plane is tantamount to an act of war. They point out that if states can reroute flights and effectively detain their passengers for several hours, then no one can fly safely anymore.

More seriously still, as a pretext for grounding the plane, the Belarusian government falsely claimed that there was a bomb on board. This sets a dangerous precedent. If pilots cannot trust governments to be truthful when issuing warnings like this, they may end up ignoring real future threats, putting their passengers in danger.

Critics of Lukashenko’s actions want Western countries to create a no-fly zone over Belarus. That would mean no aeroplanes could enter or leave the country, or even fly over it. Yesterday afternoon, the UK and other European countries instructed airlines not to fly over Belarus.

But others think Western states are being hypocritical. They have their own track record of grounding flights to capture political dissidents. In 2013, Bolivian president Evo Morales was flying from Russia when France, Spain, Portugal and Italy suddenly denied his plane access to their airspace, claiming that it was carrying US whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Morales was forced to land in Vienna, where his plane was searched. Yet the USA and its allies did not face any punishment for doing this.

Was the Ryanair hijacking an act of war?

War and peace

Yes, say some. International flights can only be kept safe if every country agrees to abide by certain rules. Belarus’s actions have put flight passengers all over the world in grave danger, setting a precedent that planes can be meddled with for entirely political reasons. The country has likely breached international law, and it has certainly struck at the very heart of the global order.

Not at all, say others. Belarus has been rocked with protests for months, and for a time it seemed like the government was bound to collapse. This was not a daring act of aggression against the West: it was the desperate act of a regime that knows just how unstable it is, propped up by another regime in Russia that can also feel its time running out.

You Decide

  1. Does this incident make it feel less safe to go on flights?
  2. Is there a moral difference between grounding a passenger flight to capture a dissident journalist, and grounding a presidential plane to capture a whistleblower?

Activities

  1. As a class, act out a press conference in which passengers from the diverted Ryanair flight describe their experience. Choose some people to be passengers and others, journalists.
  2. You are an ambassador from a European country of your choice. Staying in character, write a short speech condemning the actions of Belarus, then read it out to the person next to you.

Some People Say...

“Despotic governments can stand ‘moral force’ till the cows come home; what they fear is physical force.”

George Orwell (1903 – 1950), English novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that the world’s dictatorships are becoming bolder. In the early 1990s, dictatorships in the USSR and Eastern Europe collapsed and most were replaced with democracies. Many experts in the West became optimistic that democracy was the final stage of every country’s development. However, in the decades since, dictatorships have gained in power in China, Russia, and the Middle East. Many now think the 21st Century will see a new power struggle between democracy and dictatorship.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over what action Europe might take against Belarus. High-ranking officials in Belarus are already under personal financial sanctions, which prevents them from keeping money or assets in other European countries. The EU could impose more sanctions like these, but there is little proof that they are effective against the regime. Trade sanctions on the whole country could put pressure on Lukashenko, but risk rallying Belarusians behind him if they feel the EU is punishing them.

Word Watch

Flight MH17
A Malaysian Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur shot down over Ukraine in 2014.
Alexander Lukashenko
The president of Belarus since the country was founded in 1994. He is sometimes referred to as Europe’s last dictator.
Belarus
Formerly a part of the Soviet Union, Belarus gained its independence in 1994.
Vilnius
The capital city of Lithuania. It is one of the largest and oldest cities in the Baltic region.
Presidential elections
Many claimed that the 2020 elections in Belarus were rigged. Protests raged against the government for several months.
Nato
North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. It is a group of 30 nations all committed to defending any member state that comes under attack.
Pretext
A false reason given in justification of a course of action.
Evo Morales
The socialist president of Bolivia between 2006 and 2019, when he was forced to resign after a disputed election result.
Edward Snowden
A former computer intelligence consultant working for the National Security Agency. In 2013, he leaked a dossier revealing the existence of US mass surveillance programmes.

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