OTTAWA/MONTREAL - The UN civil aviation body said on Friday it was not responsible for issuing warnings about potential dangers such as military conflicts, saying that duty fell to individual nations.
The role of the International Civil Aviation Authority has come under scrutiny after a Malaysian airliner was shot down by a missile on Thursday over eastern Ukraine, killing 298 people.
Montreal-based ICAO rejected suggestions it should have issued a warning about the potential dangers of flying over the area. "ICAO does not declare airspace safe or unsafe or undertake any other direct operational responsibilities with respect to civilian air services," said spokesman Anthony Philbin.
"It is always the responsibility of our sovereign member states to advise other states of potential safety hazards."
Asked whether ICAO would ever issue warnings about the dangers of missiles, he replied: "It's not our job." Malaysia's transport minister said earlier that ICAO had shut down a route over eastern Ukraine after the disaster. ICAO said it did not have the power to open or shut routes.
ICAO did issue a warning to airlines in April about flying over Crimea in the wake of the Russian invasion but it cited potential problems with conflicting air traffic controllers, not the risk of violence.
The warning was not an order but rather said "consideration should be given to measures to avoid the airspace".
Malaysia said ICAO had approved the route the doomed airliner took but this appears to be a misreading of what the body does. ICAO issues advisories based on decisions taken by delegates rather than telling members what to do.
"It is up to countries to implement them or not, most countries do ... but ICAO standards are more or less equivalent to a treaty, you can either comply or not as you see fit," said a Canadian expert on aviation law, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorised to speak to the media.
Despite having an expertise in aviation, ICAO is challenged by its inherent structure as a UN body with 190 members, said John Saba, a lecturer at McGill University's Integrated Aviation Management Programme in Montreal.
"The political constraints are beyond them," Saba said. "You have people from different countries who are trying to represent the interest of their country but also hammer out deals.
"To condemn them (ICAO) would be very, very unfair." Philbin said ICAO would not pass on any information it might receive about airlines avoiding certain parts of the world because "ICAO doesn't really have an operational mandate".
Ukraine had allowed airliners to fly at 32,000 feet (9,753 meters) and higher above the area where the Malaysian flight crashed. US and other officials say the jet was shot down by a surface-to-air missile fired from territory controlled by Russian-backed separatist rebels.
Brussels-based Eurocontrol is the agency responsible for coordinating European airspace. It and ICAO were cited in a safety bulletin issued by the European Aviation Safety Agency in April advising that Crimean airspace should be avoided.
Domestic authorities also have significant powers. The US Federal Aviation Administration issued an order on Thursday prohibiting American aircraft from flying over eastern Ukraine.
ICAO said on Friday that, in response to an official request from the Ukrainian government, it would send a team to assist with the investigation into the downing of the plane. But it noted that Ukraine is officially in charge of the investigation by virtue of being the "state of occurrence".
The crash highlights the fragmented nature of global aviation regulation.
Philbin said there had been no talk of ICAO taking on a more global regulatory role and Saba said the organisation was unlikely to change in the near future.
"The countries that are members of ICAO have to agree to it. How are you going to get them all to agree to give ICAO more power over them?" he said.
"They are our best hope for having any international rules. It may be an imperfect hope but they are our best hope."