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Waking up to a “hijacking”; something is going on in Geneva

February 18, 2014

After arriving home late from a weekend in the peaceful Swiss Alps where the most commotion was the sound of resident British twenty-something ski instructors making their way home after the pub in the middle of the night, or the boom of an avalanche gun in the early morning, we awoke yesterday morning to breaking news that a hijacked Ethiopian Airlines airplane had landed here in Geneva while we slept.

As the news started to trickle in we learned that everyone was okay and the airport re-opened only two hours later. But what had happened? ( See BBC News Article )

It soon came out that the Ethiopian co-pilot had “hijacked” the plane part way through the flight in order to seek asylum in Switzerland. He waited for the pilot to go to the bathroom and then took control of the airplane and alerted air traffic control of a hijacking (one news report I saw yesterday said he keyed in the code for “I have hijacked the plane”. Who knew this code even existed, nevermind it being used? The flight was meant to land in Rome but in the words of Ethiopian Airlines it was “forced to proceed to Geneva” (See Ethiopian Airlines Flight Update ET702 here)

Passengers being escorted off flight in Geneva yesterday morning. Photo courtesy of Google Images.

Passengers being escorted off flight in Geneva yesterday morning. Photo courtesy of Google Images.

The co-pilot’s reasons for seeking asylum are not yet known, nor are his motivations for his unusual method of going about it in order to seek asylum in Switzerland instead of seeking it in Italy where he would have landed anyway, but having studied refugee law in Geneva and worked with asylum seekers in Addis Ababa, this case certainly intrigues me.

So what will happen to him? As with anything in law, the outcome depends on many variables that we can’t assess without the facts but in the meantime, a very general crash-course in the basics of refugee law:

First off, why are we talking about “refugee law” here?

The pilot is “seeking asylum” which is the first step to obtaining “refugee status”. Under international law Switzerland, as a signatory to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees (see 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees here) is obligated to assess the claim…although this is the starting point he’s then brought on the issue of whether he would be considered a danger to the community. Then there are a whole host of considerations specific to European refugee law regarding first country of asylum but given that first country of arrival is Switzerland and we are only brushing over the basics, we’ll save that for another day.

We don’t yet know the details of his claim, but to obtain official refugee status your circumstances must fit into the definition of refugee; now there are many displaced persons that although their situation may have been horrible, would not fit into the international definition of a “refugee” (e.g. fleeing from general violence, economic hardship, loss of land from environmental degradation)(note that there are regional instruments expanding this definition in certain regions but we’re going for a very foundational understanding of the basics here). The person needs to be outside their country of nationality and unable or unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of their country because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular “social group” or political opinions. Only if their persecution fits into these specified categories (or others in expanded definitions depending on the country), would the asylum seeker be recognized with official refugee status. We do not yet know the co-pilot’s claim but on the facts we have about his background it seems he would be arguing persecution based on political opinion or membership in a particular social group, the latter being a whole other can of worms.

Ethiopian Airlines flight 702 after landing in Geneva. Photo courtesy of BBC News.

Ethiopian Airlines flight 702 after landing in Geneva. Photo courtesy of BBC News.

What about the fact that he “hijacked” a plane to claim seek asylum?

Now we’ve really got an exciting exam question on our hands. There are times when even if a person fits into the international legal definition of refugee it will not apply to them because they have essentially taken themselves out of its protection (see Article 1(f) of the 1951 Convention (link above)). This of course includes certain crimes, so then it opens of the question of whether his actions fit into these clauses (e.g. a serious non –political crime committed outside country of refuge before admission as refugee).

There are a whole host of other legal considerations of course but this is not meant to be an assessment of the case, simply an introduction to what we are talking about here.

Why choose Geneva over Rome?

Flight path diversion.  Photo courtesy of Google Images.

Flight path diversion. Photo courtesy of Google Images.

His decision to commandeer the plane to change course to Geneva is an interesting one, if he had landed in Rome as planned he would have avoided the whole complication of the hijacking issue and could have sought asylum in Italy. This would have clearly been the less complicated approach. Now assuming he thought this all through and acknowledging we are now in highly-speculative territory, this decision may have been based on many factors aside from purely legal ones; perhaps it was in consideration of the high number of asylum seekers arriving in Italy via sea from North Africa (See February 4, 2014 BBC Article), the infamous compounds for asylum seekers in places like Lampedusa (See December 2013 News on Migrant Centre in Lampedusa) , or Ethiopia’s ties with Italy since the end of their occupation in the last century. There could have been a whole host of considerations for preferring Geneva over Rome but regardless of how this all unfolds, the fact that this is taking place in Geneva, one of the epicentres of international law, and home to many of the world’s foremost refugee law experts, there is no doubt it will be interesting.

Photo of our Ethiopian Airlines plane after landing in Lalibela, Ethiopia.

Photo of our Ethiopian Airlines plane after landing in Lalibela, Ethiopia.

Having flown on this very Ethiopian Airlines flight between Addis and Geneva, this event did cause me to pause for a moment of reflection for reasons besides purely legal ones, such as security.

It took me back to an epic flight from Bahir Dar (coincidentally the hometown of the co-pilot) to Addis that I took on Ethiopian Airlines with an American friend; the flight had been postponed several times due to bad weather and when we were finally given the go-ahead to get on the road, our mini-bus was stopped by a man who appeared out of nowhere on the side of the road, wearing what appeared to be a garbage bag to protect himself from the rain and demanded our passports although we were nowhere near the airport yet.

After reluctantly handing over our passports to the unlikely gatekeeper we made our way to the hangar and just as my friend walked through the electronic screening gate there was a huge clash of lightening and the power in the airport went out, meaning she could have carried anything onto the plane – and we seemed to be the only two to notice. We couldn’t help but laugh at the ridiculousness of our night, as it continued on the plane when they announced they were doing away with pre-assigned seating and told us to just get on. We had no problem with that but many of the African political leaders on our flight (there for the African Union summit)evidently used to always getting their way certainly did not appreciate us being in their seats, nor the flight attendants telling them to just sit down.

Ethiopian Airlines did get us safely back to Addis through harrowing storms and I have to say I have only ever had good experiences with Ethiopian Airlines. Nonetheless this did cause me to reflect on the security of flying in certain areas, especially considering another headline yesterday was that a Nepal Airlines wreckage was found, a domestic flight (Kathmandu-Pokhara-Jumla) had crashed into the mountains with no survivors (February 17, 2014 Article). It brought me back to the domestic flights I took during my time working in Nepal years ago, including a particularly epic one my mother and I almost missed after our taxi broke down en route and we had no choice but to hitchhike to the Pokhara airport to make our Kathmandu flight in time, but I digress. The point being these type of headlines do make you pause to reflect on the life you are living, so far from where you started.

I wanted to come back to Geneva, where I started this phase of my life in international law, to be back where the action is and between the Davos Economic Forum and Syria Peace Talks this past month and waking up to news of a hijacking yesterday, I sure feel like I got what I asked for. I often hear people express their frustration that nothing really goes on in Geneva. It has never been a sentiment I identify with. To be fair those people are often comparing it to the pace of London or Paris, and really talking about nightlife not international affairs but regardless, if you’re in the news as often as Geneva is lately, something must be going on.

Stuff going on in Geneva, a colourful band plays in the street during the Escalade festival December 2013.

Stuff going on in Geneva, a colourful band plays in the street during the Escalade festival December 2013.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Elva permalink
    February 18, 2014 8:51 am

    Why isn’t this article in the Globe & Mail, it would make the paper worth reading. If you were hijacking a plane, given what you know, would you go to Rome or Geneva?

    • February 18, 2014 10:15 am

      If anyone knows anyone at the Globe & Mail or similar – I’m available!

    • Annie permalink
      February 25, 2014 8:46 pm

      I completely agree! I think the Globe & Mail does opinion pieces…you should look into it.

      • March 11, 2014 4:27 am

        Hi Annie! Thanks so much for the support! Yes, I’ve been trying with them for over a year now but no response…I wasn’t joking in my earlier comment when I said “if anyone knows anyone at the G&M…”! I keep plugging away but I think I need to find someone who has a contact there to help me pitch it! If you know anyone who might know anyone please let me know : )


  1. Hijackings, Peace Talks, or Snowy Calm; take your pick. | Adventures in International Law

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