ICAO Conventions Reviewed

1944: Chicago – the birth of ICAO
The Convention on International Civil Aviation (Chicago Convention) was signed on 7 December 1944 by 52 states leading to the creation of the Provisional International Civil Aviation Organisation, pending ratification by at least 26 states. 30 days after the 26th ratification, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) was formally established on 4 April 1947 as a specialised agency of the United Nations.

ICAO was created to promote the safe and efficient development of civil aviation, and its’ Council (as per Article 54, paragraph L) is charged with the administration of the principles laid out in the Chicago Convention. This involves setting international standards and regulations for aviation safety, security and efficiency as well as the environmental protection of aviation.
However, the first edition of the Chicago Convention did not really touch on aviation security as it was not until the advent of the Cold War, the Cuban Revolution and then the problems surrounding Palestinian statehood that the need for aviation security was to become so apparent.

As a result, it was not until 1963 that the first worldwide legal instrument relating to aviation security was actually implemented.

1963: Tokyo – the beginnings of inflight security
The Convention on Offences and Certain Other Acts Committed on Board Aircraft (Tokyo Convention) was signed on 14 September 1963. It was basic in nature and addressed incidents and acts that occur inflight which jeopardise the safety of an aircraft and of persons and property on board, with specific focus on unruly passengers.

At the time of its introduction, hijackings were still relatively sporadic. The Tokyo Convention did, however, give certain powers to the captain to restrain passengers jeopardising or about to jeopardise flight safety. It also gave authority to the captain to disembark disruptive or problem passengers at the next port of call. In addition, it placed obligations on states of next landing to help restore command of an aircraft to the captain and take delivery of problem passengers and retain them in custody until prosecution or extradition could be arranged.

By the end of the 1960s, hijackings were becoming a serious problem. During 1969 and 1970, for instance, there were 118 incidents of unlawful seizure of civil aircraft and 14 incidents of sabotage and armed attacks against civil aviation. The ratification process was relatively slow and the Tokyo Convention was only ratified by 80 states in 1969; a year which saw a marked increase in hijackings.

This convention is now ratified by 186 member states, but it was, however, fundamentally flawed as it was not developed to fully cover the threat to civil aviation that hijackings pose. At this time, as the number of hijackings increased, Cuba increasingly became known as a safe haven for hijackers of aircraft who could escape punishment and this highlighted the major weakness of the Tokyo Convention; it did not define hijacking as an act of terrorism and it did not impose any obligation on contracting states to criminalise such acts.

1970: Hague – defining hijacking
The ICAO Council referred the problem of hijacking to the ICAO Legal Committee to consider a new legal instrument. The committee submitted a draft convention to ICAO at The Hague and the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft (Hague Convention) was signed on 16 December 1970 and entered into force on 14 October 1971.

This convention defined hijacking and obligated states to treat perpetrators with “severe penalties” in line with capital offences. The Hague Convention placed an obligation on states to either prosecute or extradite perpetrators, thus closing off safe havens such as Cuba, which hijackers had been exploiting.

The Hague Convention was largely successful as it closed many of the gaps in the Tokyo Convention, and 1971 saw a marked reduction in hijackings. The Hague Convention has now been ratified by 185 states, but a major weakness with this convention was that it only covered events inflight.

1971: Montreal – addressing other acts such as sabotage
On 21 February 1970, a bomb exploded in the cargo hold of an Austrian Airlines Sud Aviation Caravelle flight, but in this case the flight was able to divert to Frankfurt safely. On the same day, a bomb exploded in the cargo hold of Swissair 330 shortly after departing Zurich, killing 47 passengers and crew. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) claimed responsibility.

Then, in September 1970, a Swissair, BOAC and TWA aircraft were hijacked and sabotaged by the PFLP at Dawson’s Field, a desert airstrip in Jordan. In addition, the group attempted to hijack an El Al flight at Amsterdam, but were foiled when one hijacker was shot and killed and another, Leila Khaled, was captured. The group also hijacked a Pan Am aircraft which was later sabotaged, shortly after landing at Cairo.

These atrocities led to the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Civil Aviation (Montreal Convention), which was signed on 23 September 1971 and entered into force on 23 January 1973. One of the key advances in this convention was that it criminalised those not on board involved in aviation terrorist acts.

The main provisions of Montreal were to criminalise placing on board any device that might jeopardise the safety of that aircraft inflight; destroying or damaging air navigation facilities that might jeopardise the safety of an aircraft inflight; destroying or damaging an aircraft inflight; violence against a person on board a flight; and communicating false information to jeopardise flight safety.

The Montreal Convention has now been ratified by 188 states. It is generally viewed as a successful legal instrument as it strengthened much that was achieved in the Hague Convention. It did, however, only cover aircraft inflight or in service.

1974: Chicago revisited – Annex 17
Meanwhile, as hijackings increased in frequency, an Extraordinary Assembly was held in Montreal from 16 to 30 June 1970 and subsequently initial aviation security standards were developed and circulated to contracting states for comment in 1972.