European leaders quickly criticized these actions, and the European Union announced on Monday that Belarusian airlines would no longer be permitted to fly over the airspace of member states and would be denied landing rights in E.U. countries.
Belarus’s diversion of a civilian aircraft has historical precedents, but the E.U.’s swift and dramatic response does not. Civil aviation is dominated by bi- and multilateral agreements, which take a substantial amount of time to change, even for minor provisions. The E.U.’s rapid response showcases the importance that its leaders attach to Lukashenko’s actions — and their determination to counter them. By treating Belarus as a state hijacker because of Lukashenko’s underlying political aims, the E.U. broke with how the international community has historically responded to hijackings. Looking at the history of plane hijackings and international responses to them shows us that measures to deter and prevent hijackings are only as effective as their underlying diplomacy.
Today plane hijackings are rare. In part, that’s because of international laws and agreements adopted to deter them. Most international agreements against plane hijackings have their roots in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when such hijackings were peaking. These agreements were designed with a particular type of hijacker in mind: individual and nonstate hijackers — not state-sponsored plane diversions.
In these years, Palestinian extremists dominated the news with dramatic hijackings of large international flights. For example, in 1968, Palestinians hijacked an Israeli El Al plane and held it for weeks on the tarmac of the airport in Algiers. They released women and children to safety, and then successfully traded the 22 remaining passengers and crew members for 16 prisoners held by Israel. In September 1970, Palestinians seized five airplanes and held three planes and hundreds of passengers hostage at Dawson’s airfield in Jordan. Their goal was to pressure Israel and its allies and draw global attention to the Palestinian struggle.
In response, most wealthy, industrialized states introduced new domestic aviation security measures to prevent further hijackings. But practices like comprehensive passenger screenings and the installation of metal detectors were an expensive burden on governments and airline companies alike. International collaboration offered low-cost and politically effective alternatives.
For example, U.S. and Western European diplomats championed international agreements that required all signatory states to make hijacking a criminal offense. Since Israel, the United States and Western European countries already punished hijackers — they did not support them and rarely recognized their political aims — this approach actually aimed to limit the aid that hijackers could get from other states, notably asylum or avoidance of criminal prosecution. In particular, this approach targeted Arab states and especially Algeria, whose officials had recently participated in their own national liberation struggle and were inclined to support radical Palestinians. The goal of U.S. and European anti-hijacking initiatives was to alienate state officials from Palestinian hijackers and ensure that hijackers could not achieve political ends through attacks on civil aviation.
To a limited extent, these agreements worked. While they did not deter or prevent hijackings directly, they did delegitimize the hijackers’ related political aims. Algeria and other states signed on. And hijackings became less attractive for radicals trying to achieve political demands. By the late 1970s, Palestinian extremists had shifted to other types of attacks to make political claims, including bombings and embassy takeovers.
For example, in the five years between 1968 and 1972, during the so-called “golden age” of hijackings, 306 hijackings occurred around the world, with an average of 61 hijackings a year. Then the new agreements and security measures came into force. From 1973 to 2000, hijackings ranged from between 11 (1991) and 39 (1980) annually. After the 9/11 attacks, new security procedures further reduced these numbers. Only 68 hijackings occurred in total between 2001 and 2020. And though the 9/11 attacks precipitated the “Global War on Terror,” new anti-hijacking initiatives have continued to focus on the identification, deterrence, capture and prosecution of specific attackers as individuals in criminal cases.
There is also a limited history of individual states diverting civil airplanes for their own political aims. In August 1973, for example, the Israeli Defense Forces forcibly diverted a Lebanese airplane to Israel. Their hope was to find and arrest Palestinian extremist leader George Habash, one of the main planners of the Dawson’s Field hijackings, but he was not onboard.
In October 1985, U.S. fighters intercepted a plane carrying Palestinians that had hijacked a cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, after the hijackers had successfully negotiated free passage from Egypt. The American fighters diverted the plane to a NATO air base in Italy, where a standoff ensued between U.S. Special Forces and Italian law enforcement before the Italians arrested the hijackers.
Yet in both cases, Lebanon and Egypt raised strong objections — and the determination of Israel and the United States to control international civil plane routes strained diplomatic relations. But, notably, their actions did not change any bilateral agreements in terms of civil aviation because of the time and effort it would have taken to do so.
Indeed, several states working collectively to cut off another country’s landing rights has been exceedingly rare. For example, as tensions between the United States and communist bloc flared in 1978, the Group of Seven heads of state agreed to take a united stance against airplane hijackings. Little happened, though, until 1981. That year, the G-7 states accused the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan of granting asylum to hijackers of Pakistan International Airlines flight 326. The hijackers had killed a Pakistani diplomat and negotiated the release of 50 Pakistani prisoners before fleeing into Pakistani and Afghani border regions. In response, the G-7 states withdrew landing rights from the Afghani regime’s Ariana Airlines. However, this withdrawal took a year and remains the rare exception rather than norm or standard practice.
In short, hijackings have long been an international concern, but so too have been pressures to ensure the landing rights of commercial planes. Only extreme measures have ever significantly changed civil air travel policies, and this has always taken time. That is why the E.U.’s current response is so significant and may herald a new global emphasis on state interference with air travel.
The Belarus situation reveals that authoritarian states may be replacing nonstate actors as the principal threat to civilian aircraft and their passengers. This means that instead of focusing on the actual act and crime of hijacking, as we long have, paying careful attention to the political context may now be key to understanding the event’s significance. And it means that our existing frameworks for understanding the stakes of hijackings as political acts by individuals will have to be revisited.