There are reports today (12 November 2014) from Fairfax and News Ltd that Prime Minister Abbott is urging Vladimir Putin to follow the example of the US government after the Iran Air Flight 655 shootdown — and that he has said the US both paid compensation and apologised. In particular a spokeswoman for the prime minister is quoted thus:
“The Prime Minister observed that when the United States had inadvertently shot down a civilian aircraft it had duly apologised and made appropriate restitution …”
I am hoping the spokeswoman erred on this point. Because I cannot find any reliable reports that the US ever formally apologised or made any payment which it was willing to describe as compensation.
Indeed, based on the reports I can find and my own faulty memory of the time, the US very pointedly avoided apologising or paying compensation.
All I can find in reports is that the US “expressed regret” over the shootdown and made an ex gratia payment. These are the words you use when you are not admitting anything. And this all happened as part of a settlement at the International Court of Justice in 1996, eight years after the shootdown took place – a shootdown unequivocally, albeit mistakenly, launched by the US military.
The PM is said to have “commended the precedent” of the US Flight 655 actions to Putin. It’s a lousy precedent. George H. W. Bush (i.e. Bush the elder), vice-president and campaigning for the presidency at the time, was moved by the shootdown to say in August 1988:
“I will never apologize for the United States – I don’t care what the facts are … I’m not an apologize-for-America kind of guy.”
We are holding Russia to a higher standard than that to which the US was held in 1988. That’s entirely appropriate.
It would be preferable, though, to end the pretence that the US behaved impeccably over Iran Air 655 or that it set an example Russia should follow. On the available facts, the US behaved shamefully.
Twisting the truth is one of the things that has gotten Putin regarded as a thug. Australia and its leaders should be able to adopt a higher standard.