Prime Minister Tony Abbott is reported to be considering using the Australian Federal Police’s International Deployment Group (IDG) as part of wider efforts to secure the MH17 crash site in eastern Ukraine. The objective would be to permit the recovery of bodies and the conduct of a full investigation into the crash. In the past the IDG has been used principally as part of missions to restore order and rebuild basic governance in places such as East Timor and the Solomon Islands, in our region, and well away from the type of scenario currently unfolding in eastern Ukraine. In the cases of East Timor and Afghanistan, Australian police have been either part of United Nations missions or under bilateral agreements between the two governments concerned.

The AFP has also sent detachments of police to more volatile and dangerous places, such as Sudan and Afghanistan. In these cases, however, the number of police has been typically very small, and much thought has been given to the military and private security support available to protect those officers, who are typically undertaking special training and intelligence tasks from within relatively well-protected environments. Protecting officers in such circumstances, needless to say, is very difficult and also expensive.

There are a couple of fundamental considerations raised by such a proposal. The first is the formal authority for undertaking a mission of this kind. Australia is unlikely to move in this direction without some formal approval. While technically the government of the Ukraine could agree to such a move, either through legislation or a formal agreement with our government, there is the issue of whether it could be operative in the contested area around the crash site. Separatist rebels may not be inclined to recognise and respect an agreement on political grounds, in which case, Australian police personnel would be extremely exposed, a risk our government would not contemplate.

The other option is pursuing a UN Security Council resolution authorising in effect a peacekeeping mission specifically for the purposes of securing the crash site and allowing forensic investigations and collection of human remains to proceed unimpeded. Australia’s IDG could well constitute a part of such a mission and would be consistent with past practice in places such as East Timor. There would indeed be AFP forensic expertise outside the IDG itself that could usefully be included in such a mission. This has occurred in the past in the aftermath of major bombing attacks and humanitarian disasters in Indonesia.

Behind the issue of formal approval, there is the obvious one of ensuring the safety of Australian police personnel. In the past, Australian police inserted into arguably far less dangerous environments have relied on Australian military personnel in the initial phases at least to provide the security “envelope” to enable them to perform their policing tasks. Who would play this role in an apparently more perilous environment such as eastern Ukraine at present is not clear. Press reports indicate the Australian military is also being considered for a role, in which case the IDG could draw upon its established links and previous experiences with the ADF in joint operations abroad. However, the composition of any peacekeeping mission is likely to be larger, given the extent of Dutch interest in the disaster, but Australian police have history in terms of working as part of larger multinational missions.

The AFP undoubtedly does have considerable offshore experience of a variety of kinds, more probably than any other single police force in the world. It thus could conceivably play a useful role in relation to supporting the crash site investigation. However, the political and practical challenges here are considerable, and without strong UN and Russian support, could prove insuperable.

*Andrew Goldsmith is strategic professor of criminology at Flinders University and chief investigator on Policing the Neighbourhood, a three-year study into the AFP interventions in East Timor, the Solomons and PNG. Grant Niemann is a senior lecturer in law, specialising in international criminal law, and was formerly a war crime prosecutor in the Hague.