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Dispatches: Urgent Need for Ukraine Crash Site Access
July 20, 2014

Was MH 17 brought down by a missile fired by anti-Kiev insurgents or by some other cause? That  question is best answered by an independent expert investigation. The families of the 298 victims, whose agony is surely unbearable, deserve the truth. Yet with each passing minute that evidence remains in control of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” insurgency, the challenges to the integrity of an investigation multiply.

Today a spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)  mission, which has been able, under limiting circumstances, to observe some parts of the crash scene, said his impression was that there “was a preparedness to listen to ‘international experts’ and follow their guidance.” But the fact that the insurgents are holding the 196 bodies retrieved so far in refrigerated railway cars and refusing to allow them to move to government-controlled parts of Ukraine, where they could be transported onward to the custody of their home governments, is only the latest concern.  The location and chain of custody of the black box is obviously another.

These forces are also determining who gets access to the crime scene.

For an investigation of this atrocity to be credible, the crime scene needs to be secured by independent forces that can ensure the chain of custody of the evidence. Yet it is in the hands of the  insurgents, who —together with Moscow--have an obvious, outsized interest in disproving the theory  that the Russia-backed rebels were responsible for bringing the plane down. Having the insurgents maintain any control over the crime scene could torpedo prospects for an impartial investigation and for the truth ever to be known.

The Russian state media have been in full-throttle overdrive, proposing many alternative theories, none of which point to rebel culpability. No matter what theory  Moscow wishes to believe or ignore, one undisputed fact is that as a matter of customary international humanitarian law, parties to a conflict must facilitate the return of the dead and their personal effects, upon request of the party to which they belong or their next of kin. Every minute the ”Donetsk People’s Republic”  forces interfere with returning the bodies, they are violating that rule.  For that reason alone Moscow should tell the insurgents over whom it has obvious influence to immediately turn over the bodies, and allow a neutral entity like the OSCE to secure the crime scene.