Statement of the U.S. Representative to ICAO on the ICAO FFIT Report on the Ryanair Flight 4978 Forced Diversion by Belarus

Statement of the U.S. Representative to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) on the
ICAO Fact Finding Investigation Team (FFIT) Report on the
Ryanair Flight 4978 Forced Diversion by Belarus

The United States welcomes the report by ICAO’s Fact-Finding Investigation Team on the May 23, 2021, forced diversion of Ryanair Flight 4978 by the Lukashenka regime.  The Report’s findings leave no doubt that Belarusian officials manufactured a false bomb threat to divert Flight 4978 to land in Minsk in order to detain passenger and opposition journalist, Raman Pratasevich, and his companion, Sofia Sapega.  This action by the Lukashenka regime was a direct affront to international norms, an egregious act of transnational repression, and a blatant – and dangerous – manipulation of the civil air navigation system.

There must be consequences for the Lukashenka regime.  We cannot allow civil aircraft in mid-flight to become the instruments of dictators.  The United States calls on this Council to condemn the regime for its actions and send a strong message that we will not tolerate such attacks on international civil aviation.

As we consider the Lukashenka regime’s actions, and our response today, I call your attention to several elements of the Fact-Finding Report that reveal major inconsistencies with the Belarus authorities’ version of events:

  • Belarusian authorities assert they received an e-mail with a bomb threat against Flight 4978 at 12:25 local time, however, the e-mail service provider, ProtonMail, confirmed to investigators that the bomb threat email was sent to the Minsk airport at 12:56. In other words, Belarusian authorities acted on the supposed threat more than 30 minutes before it was sent to their inbox.  Despite repeated requests, the regime did not provide the original e-mail, claiming instead that it had been erased.  Throughout the investigation, Belarusian authorities claimed that critical evidence to support their assertions was destroyed or unavailable.
  • Despite the Belarusian authorities declaring to the pilots that the bomb threat was a “Code Red” situation, the authorities demonstrated no urgency over the threat once the plane landed. Authorities did not evacuate the aircraft for nearly an hour, insisted that a pilot remain onboard, and conducted a cursory 18-minute inspection of the plane before cancelling the “distress” signal.
  • After having delivered a “Code Red” bomb threat, Belarusian officials did not focus on securing the plane; they focused instead on their main objectives: detaining Pratasevich and Sapega. While Belarusian authorities shared excerpts from recordings of its security officials’ interactions with the passengers, they refused to provide the entirety of the tapes and claimed instead that the evidence had been erased.

While we’ve highlighted only a few of the inconsistencies in the Lukashenka regime’s claims, it is clear that officials in Minsk acted with a total disregard for passengers’ safety and violated the fundamental trust that must exist between pilots and air traffic controllers for international civil aviation to function both seamlessly and safely.  The evidence exposed that Belarus Air Traffic Control actively misled the pilots, failed to contact Ryanair’s Operations Center, and deliberately provided incomplete information about the alleged threat to the pilots.  Given the circumstances, and without access to any other source of information, the pilots had no credible option other than to divert the aircraft to Minsk.  Such an outrageous manipulation of civil aviation for domestic political purposes strikes at the foundation of the Chicago Convention to create a safe and secure international aviation system.

This Council must therefore 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.  We should decide that the Fact-Finding Investigation Team must continue its critical work and report back to the Council as it compiles additional evidence, and that the report must be forwarded to the UN Secretary General so that the UN Security Council may consider its own response.  Finally, in the interest of transparency, we also request that the report – including any updated versions and, to the extent possible, the supporting evidence – be published on ICAO’s website.

Thank you, Mr. President, Mr. Secretary-General, and all Council Representatives.