MH17: the Blame Game

NATIONALE HERDENKING MH-17Could the downing of the MH17 have been avoided? Now that it has become known that the civil service had ‘official’ knowledge of the dangers of Ukrainian airspace, Christ Klep explains why the Dutch government did not acknowledge its responsibility.


And so it happened that the question of blame shifted to the Netherlands. In the wake of such a serious and complex disaster this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Was the Netherlands really completely ignorant of the risks?

No, someone deep inside the civil service maze knew about the dangers of the airspace above eastern Ukraine. Or rather: someone had official knowledge of these dangers. It’s important to make the distinction. The fact that there were dangers was common knowledge. All you had to do was read the papers. Military planes were shot down frequently. This piece of the puzzle was well-known.

But a couple of days ago this piece of the puzzle started to change colour. It went from green to red. It is changing from a relatively unthreatening detail for the Dutch authorities involved into a potentially very hot potato.

The classic ‘what if?’ question has become a much weightier one. Until very recently the government could counter it by stating that there simply weren’t any data to justify an immediate stop to flights over eastern Ukraine. And yet. Apparently someone in the chain of civil servants could have raised the alarm. Of course all this is hindsight but in any case a not unimportant part of the question of who is to blame is now ‘officially’ on the plate of the Dutch government.

The cabinet has been less than forthcoming about the issue and not for nothing. (A telling detail: the answers to MPs’ questions came shortly before midnight). There are at least two reasons for this.

The government has consistently championed the cause of the victims. It expressed the national feeling of indignation and swore not to rest until the culprits were found. Moral leadership, however, flourishes by means of an unbiased division of roles. The cabinet did not want to lose control of the events following the downing of MH17. Paradoxical as it may seem, a candid admission of one’s own responsibility is not a likely step in this context.

‘Intrinsically’ negative

Secondly, the government is certain of one thing: the aftermath of MH17 is going to be ‘intrinsically’ negative, thorny and unpredictable. Follow-up questions are looming on the horizon. Who knew exactly what and what was done with this information? The civil service has an endless number of options to stifle and evade this question. ‘No, we had no formal duty to inform other authorities.’ Or: ‘Of course, had we only known, we would have taken the necessary steps..etc.’

In short, there is a chance that the aftermath of MH17 will be damaging for this government. Perhaps the explanation for MH17 is very simple: no one could have imagined that the rebels would shoot down a passenger plane.

But it’s not that simple (anymore). The ‘what if?’ question is now an ‘official’ one. It will be interesting to hear the reactions of the aviation authorities and the secret services. They will probably go on the defensive, as they have done before.

But this kind of morally-loaded scenario is something for MPs, investigative journalists, lawyers and families of the victims to get their teeth into. It’s a highly explosive mix of new details, revelations and partial – and consequently unsatisfactory – answers.

The same happened after the terrorist attacks of 2001 (‘nine eleven’) and Srbrenica. The authorities involved are in for a rough ride. The fight surrounding the apportioning of blame will be long and difficult and it will be as fascinating as it is alienating.

Christ Klep is a military historian

This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant

Thank you for donating to

We could not provide the Dutch News service, and keep it free of charge, without the generous support of our readers. Your donations allow us to report on issues you tell us matter, and provide you with a summary of the most important Dutch news each day.

Make a donation