By David Ljunggren and Allison Lampert
OTTAWA/MONTREAL (Reuters) - The U.N.'s aviation body on Friday said it did not have the authority to close global air routes, seeking to distance itself from responsibility after the downing of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine.
Malaysia's transport minister said earlier that the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) had shut the route after a Malaysian Airline jet was brought down in eastern Ukraine on Thursday, killing all 298 people aboard.
"ICAO does not open or close routes. We do not have an operational role," said chief ICAO spokesman Anthony Philbin.
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". It did not issue a warning for eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian rebels are fighting Ukrainian forces.
Malaysia said ICAO had approved the route 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 named because he was not authorized to speak to media.
Despite having an expertise in aviation, ICAO is challenged by its inherent structure as a United Nations 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 of ICAO. "You have people from different countries who are trying to represent the interest of their country but also hammer out deals.
Ukraine had allowed airliners to fly at 32,000 feet (9,753 meters) and higher above the area where the Malaysian flight crashed. U.S. 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 U.S. Federal Aviation Administration issued an order on Thursday prohibiting American aircraft from flying over eastern Ukraine.
ICAO has made an offer to Ukraine to put together an international team of investigators, U.N. political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman told the Security Council On Friday.
The crash highlights the fragmented nature of global aviation regulation. But ICAO is unlikely to change its role 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?" said McGill's Saba. "They are our best hope for having any international rules. It may be an imperfect hope but they are our best hope."
(Additional reporting by Randall Palmer in Ottawa and Euan Rocha in Toronto; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Amran Abocar and Tom Brown)