The Framing of MH-17

PHILADELPHIA – US President Barack Obama called the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 an “outrage of unspeakable proportions,” whereas Russian President Vladimir Putin termed it an “accident” and a “terrible tragedy.” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko branded it an “act of terrorism,” and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak called it an “inhumane, uncivilized, violent, and irresponsible act.”

All of these descriptions may be accurate, but each carries different rhetorical weight and legal implications. The time has come for governments and international organizations to call the attack on MH17 a probable war crime.

This rhetorical shift is needed, first and foremost, because framing the moral reprehensibility of this despicable act within a common language will help to align public perceptions of it. As it stands, the public narrative in Russia and the West diverges sharply. Russian media and officials portray the episode as, at best, a terrible mistake, and, at worst, an American plot to undermine support for the rebels. Americans and Europeans, for their part, increasingly blame Russia for possibly equipping or assisting the rebels.

As a result, the possibility of achieving a common understanding of the act is being lost – and, with it, whatever potential there may be for meaningful cooperation. But, by recognizing the downing of MH17 as a war crime, governments may be able to create an opening to reconcile these narratives.