Legal precedents exist for US compensating Iran Air victims

The United States could recompense relatives of those killed on Iran Air Flight 655 without admitting liability or fixing blame for the tragedy, say some international legal experts. It is the ``moral responsibility'' of the US to do so, adds Andreas Lowenfeld, a professor of international law and aviation law at New York University. Regardless of the status of relations between the governments of Iran and America, he points out, ``the passengers on that plane were innocent,'' and their death was caused by a weapon fired by a US ship.

Clear legal precedents exist for such ex gratia payments, says Alfred Rubin, an international law professor at Tufts University. Israel paid the families of those killed and injured when Israeli jets attacked the USS Liberty at the height of the Six-Day War in 1967.

Iraq has agreed in principle to such payments for the May 1987 attack on the USS Stark. The US gave Grenada $1.6 million for damages resulting from the October 1983 invasion, including payments to relatives of 18 people killed when a hospital was mistakenly bombed.

The Soviet Union has made no payments for the shootdown of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in September 1983, however. Curiously, says Professor Rubin, neither Korea, Japan, nor the United States availed itself of all legal avenues to prompt remuneration. Harvard University Professor Detlez Vagts, on the other hand, is ``not at all sure [the US] could have usefully taken the case any further.''

Claims filed by the American hostages held in Tehran from 1979-80 are still being considered by a judicial panel at the World Court in the Hague. Professor Rubin proposes that the US State Department suggest to Iran that relatives of those on the Iran Air flight who wish to could appeal to that panel for compensation. Such a move might also serve to remind the world that Iran is not an ``injured innocent,'' says Rubin. Should Iran refuse, the US could rightfully claim it had tried to settle the matter.

If Iran responds with inflated claims for the deaths of the passengers, the US could point to several international legal precedents for compensation in ``wrongful deaths.'' In 1915, a panel was convened to establish compensation for American citizens killed when the Lusitania was torpedoed. This was not a punitive action, says Professor Rubin. Such criteria as the age and potential earning capacity were established and considered, and compensation made.

Professor Lowenthal points to the Warsaw Convention of 1929 and the Hague protocol of 1965 (to which Iran is a party). They establish ``an acceptable international standard for airplane disasters,'' he says. Based on those guidelines, the US would provide a payment of $5.8 million to $6 million.

To delay a humanitarian payment would make the US look ``penny pinching and foolish,'' says Rubin.

To stipulate that all American hostages now being held in the Mideast be released as a condition of any payment, as has been suggested in Congress, would be ``getting to [Iran's] level,'' says Lowenfeld. That would be paying money for hostages. On the other hand, if the payment ``is done and done fast, you might actually improve the situation of the hostages.''

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