Belarus Forced Diversion of Ryanair Flight 4978 – Are We Still Outraged? republish of Post 2/17/2022 NOW???

Belarus and Ryanair
Share this article: FacebooktwitterlinkedinFacebooktwitterlinkedin

World horrified when Belarus had its ATC give false information to Ryanair flight

The government used this unfounded grounding to seize a dissident

the Illegal Diversion May 23, 2021, ICAO started process immediately, no answer yet

By Irene Howie

The headlines have moved on, yet the passenger targeted and waylaid by the Government of Belarus’ forced diversion of  a Ryanair jet  remains in a Belarus jail, physical condition unknown, now eight months and counting, with no conclusions by the International Civil Aviation Organization as to responsibility and violations of international law.  ICAO’s lack of urgency is playing into the hands of national leaders inured to consequences for their actions that threaten global order.

To remind. 

Ryan Air panel



On May 23, 2021, a Ryanair Boeing 737 with 171 passengers, including Roman Protasevich, a prominent Belarus dissident and journalist, took off from Athens, Greece for Vilnius, Lithuania. The flight route included a segment over Belarus airspace. The aircraft was just moments from leaving Belarus air space when the pilot was told by Belarus air traffic control that a bomb was on board and to divert to Minsk, the capitol of Belarus. Upon landing, Belarus authorities took Protasevich and his Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega companion into custody, preventing them from leaving when the aircraft and other passengers were released and continued on to Vilnius. There was no bomb. Protasevich and his companion remain held against their will under apparent extreme duress.

Some world leaders expressed outrage.  The ICAO Council President called an “urgent meeting of the 36 diplomatic representatives” on May 27, 2021, to consider the incident. The Council “expressed strong concern at the apparent forced diversion of Ryanair Flight FR4978, a commercial passenger aircraft flying in Belarus airspace on Sunday, 23 May 2021”, tasked the ICAO Secretary General to conduct a fact finding investigation, and “called upon all ICAO Member States and other relevant stakeholders to collaborate with this fact-finding investigation in the interests of ensuring the safety and security of civil aviation and offered the assistance and expertise of ICAO in the pursuit of this endeavour. “

But what has happened since then?

ICAO Council session

An interim report had been scheduled to be presented to the ICAO Council by the end of June, 2021, with a final report to be submitted September 2021.  But there was no report presented to the Council in June or September and no publicly released status report.  In response to an early September 2021 media query, ICAO reportedly said  “The ICAO Council has agreed to defer its consideration of the Ryanair Flight FR4978 investigation report until its next session, in January 2022,” citing the “volume of data submitted and additional state clarifications still being required.”

On January 17, 2022, ICAO announced that the fact-finding report had been released to ICAO members.  The preliminary report, available online through a media source but not yet published by ICAO,  indicates the pilot of the aircraft was told lies by Belarus ATC, which also withheld information and failed to communicate with Ryanair despite the pilot’s requests and avoided contact efforts by Vilnius ground control – the destination airport.  The report is replete with evidence that the actions of the Belarus authorities once the aircraft had landed were inconsistent with an actual bomb threat. On January 31, 2022, the ICAO Council met to consider the report and “formally consider any further actions to be taken by ICAO as a result of the report’s findings.”

But what came out of this meeting?  The Council expressed concern at the gaps and inconsistencies in information provided by Belarus, “highlighted” that the bomb threat was “deliberately false and had endangered the safety of an aircraft in flight.” It “recalled that communicating false information which endangers the safety of an aircraft is an offence under the Montreal Convention, and in this connection, strongly condemned such practices,” but without ascribing responsibility.  Instead, it requested the ICAO investigation team to continue its work in light of “newly emerging information” with no concluding date specified.

Chesley Burnett Sullenberger III

The US ICAO Representative found sufficient information in the report for the Council  to “exercise its responsibility to protect international civil aviation by taking a decision today that will condemn the unlawful interference with international civil aviation identified in the report and highlight the inconsistencies in the account given by the Belarusian authorities.”

Belarus flag with tear!!!

The ICAO Council in the past has claimed ICAO consistently reacts especially quickly to rapidly unfolding events when called upon to do so.  How does ICAO’s reaction in this case compare to the handful of previous events the ICAO Council in its history has been called upon to investigate?  We would posit that the length of time between the event and the ICAO Council’s determination after an investigation report now is breaking with the past, and its muted statements and insufficient transparency and delays between them are unusual.

Previous ICAO Investigations.

The following is a time line of ICAO Secretariat investigations for purposes of comparison with the Ryanair diversion.  In each of these cases, facts were in dispute, but the Council nonetheless came to conclusions in the interests of reinforcing the global framework of international civil aviation safety.

 February 21, 1973 Shooting down of Libyan civil aircraft, on a scheduled flight from Benghazi to Cairo, by Israeli military aircraft. Libyan

 February 28, 1973. ICAO Assembly resolution condemns the Israeli action, directs the ICAO Council to investigate and report to the Council at the earliest date, calling upon all parties to cooperate fully in the investigation.

  • March 5, 1973. ICAO Council instructs Secretary General to conduct a fact-finding investigation.  Note:  The Government of Israel disputed that that the action was intentional and claimed the pilot of the civil aircraft had ignored its instructions.
  • June 4, 1973. ICAO Council examines the investigation report and adopts a resolution strongly condemning the Israeli action and urging Israel to comply with the aims and objectives of the Chicago Convention.


September 1, 1983.  Shooting down of Korean civil aircraft on scheduled flight from NYC to Seoul via Anchorage by USSR military aircraft. KAL


  • September 17, 1983. ICAO Council adopts a resolution deeply deploring the action, calling for a fact-finding investigation, and urging all parties to cooperate.  Note:  The USSR did not cooperate and withheld evidence for almost a decade.
  • December 13, 1983. Secretary General’s investigation report presented to the Council and referred to the Air Navigation Commission to study.
  • March 6, 1984. Despite gaps in information, the ICAO Council adopts a resolution condemning the shooting down of the aircraft and deeply deploring the refusal of the Soviet government to cooperate.


July 3, 1988.  Shooting down of Iranian civil aircraft on a scheduled flight from Tehran to Dubai via Bandar Abbas, by a surface to air missile fired from a US naval ship.IRAN


  • July 18, 1988. ICAO Council adopts a resolution deploring the use of weapons against a civil aircraft and  directing the Secretary General to conduct a fact-finding investigation, urging all concerned parties to cooperate fully with the investigation.
  • November 1988. Secretary General’s investigation report presented to the Council, which directs the ANC to study it.  The Council again expresses its deep regret for the loss of life and reaffirms the fundamental principle of general international law that States must refrain from resorting to the use of weapons against civil aircraft.
  • March 17, 1989. Council adopts a resolution deeply deploring the incident which occurred as a result of errors in identification and the accidental destruction of the aircraft.


February 24, 1996.  Shooting down of two US registered civil aircraft operated by “Brothers to the Rescue” by Cuban Air Force.Cuba


  • March 6, 1996. ICAO Council adopts a resolution strongly deploring the shooting down of the aircraft and directs the secretary general of ICAO to conduct an investigation.
  • June 20, 1996. The Secretary General presents its report to the Council.
  • June 26-7, 1996. The ICAO Council considers the investigation report and issues a resolution recalling it strongly deplored the use of weapons against civil aircraft and reaffirms the principle that States must refrain from the use of weapons against civil aircraft in flight.

The Collective Responsibility to Protect the International Aviation System Redux.

Gathering the information for this litany was a discouraging reminder that the global aviation community under the auspices of ICAO keeps repeating itself.  But to suggest this means that voice is futile when civil aviation is attacked is to give up, and that we cannot do.  ICAO is the venue to which we return to recommit that international civil aviation safety is sacrosanct, its abuse a threat to global security, and, unlike the UN Security Council, this venue has no veto to derail the proceedings.  We would argue that this case carries with it the same or more urgency than the shootdown cases because the target of this incident is alive and waiting for justice.  As important is Belarus’ use of  a false bomb threat to turn the international aviation safety system against itself to repress political opposition.  The success of this shameful gambit without ICAO’s urgent, clear, formal denunciation to date is an invitation for repeated occurrences.  We can only hope that the epilogue to this investigation concludes quickly, and the ICAO Council and Assembly make forceful and pointed rebukes, calling out those responsible for the international outcast they should be.

Irene Howie

By Irene E. Howie

February 10, 2022


Irene Howie is an attorney in private practice specializing in domestic and international aviation regulatory matters.  She served for several years as Assistant Chief Counsel for International Affairs and Legal Policy at the Federal Aviation Administration and was a  partner at Hogan & Hartson, LLP, now Hogan Lovells.  During her tenure at the FAA, she served as a member of US delegations to ICAO meetings on the Korean Air Lines and Iran Air shootdowns.






Share this article: FacebooktwitterlinkedinFacebooktwitterlinkedin

Be the first to comment on "Belarus Forced Diversion of Ryanair Flight 4978 – Are We Still Outraged? republish of Post 2/17/2022 NOW???"

Leave a comment