Fact check: The Iran Air Flight 655 non-apology

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.

About David Walker

David Walker runs editorial consultancy Shorewalker DMS (shorewalker.net), editing and advising business and government on reports and other editorial content. David has previously edited Acuity magazine and the award-winning INTHEBLACK business magazine, been chief operating officer of online publisher WorkDay Media, held policy and communications roles at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia and the Business Council of Australia and run the website for online finance start-up eChoice. He has qualifications in law and corporate finance. He has written on economics, business and public policy from Melbourne, Adelaide and the Canberra Press Gallery.
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Ken Parish
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Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
7 years ago

I tweeted this story this morning, subverting the Twitter 140 character limit by putting the text in an image. I hope you don’t mind if I post it in your story.

conrad
conrad
7 years ago

An ex-gratia payment would be far better than nothing. I’m sure for many people that are not lawyers, any type of payment basically feels like the other party is admitting wrong doing, and that they are just too pathetic to admit it (like the US).

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
7 years ago

This is not an apologise for America kind of blog.