The Chicago Convention of 1944 establishes a framework of rules which govern international civil aviation.  It contains a number of principles which are fundamental to the way in which the civil aircraft of its contracting states navigate the globe.  Sovereignty in the air, principles of aircraft registration and basic licensing and airworthiness requirements are established by the Convention.  The Convention also provides for rules governing aircraft accident investigation and search and rescue operations. 

Under international law contracting states are obliged to comply with the rules established in the Convention, which is widely ratified and, generally speaking, widely adhered to.

Few Convention provisions deal directly with aircraft accidents and incidents.  The first relevant provision deals with aircraft in distress.  This provides an obligation on all contracting states to assist aircraft in distress in their territory by providing such measures as it may find practical, and to permit owners/authorities of the registration state to provide certain measures of assistance.  When searching for a missing aircraft, each contracting state must ‘collaborate in coordinated measures’ which are recommended pursuant to the Convention.  The other relevant provision deals with accident investigation, providing that where an accident involving death or serious injury or indicating serious technical defects in the aircraft (or air navigation facilities) of one contracting state occurs in the territory of another contracting state, that state will institute an inquiry in accordance with the procedure recommended by ICAO.

Annexed to the Convention are the international standards, procedures and recognised practices, or “SARPS”.  The 19 SARPS are detailed technical regulations, each dealing with a separate topic on international civil aviation.  Examples include personnel licensing, meteorological services for international aviation, and aeronautical information.  The Convention requires ICAO to develop and adopt SARPs on a list of civil aviation matters including aircraft accidents and incidents. 


Annex 12 deals with Search and Rescue (SAR).  The Annex and accompanying manual deals with the organisation of SAR operations, their management and the relevant operating procedures to be followed by contracting states in their territory and over the high seas.  Key features include the requirement that States are to provide SAR services within their territories or over portions of the high seas, and procedures for establishing communications and designating public or private services to assist.  Additionally, the Annex:

  • Prescribes cooperation between countries providing SAR services  and the dissemination of information needed for SAR unit’s fast entry into the territory of another state;
  • Sets out equipment requirements for SAR units;
  • Specifies requirements for the publication of detailed plans of operation for SAR operations which must be prepared; and
  • Sets out actions to be taken at different phases of the operation, from the ‘uncertainty phase’ when radio contact is lost with the aircraft and an one or more Rescue Control Centers are set up, through the alert phase and into the distress phase, when it is identified that the aircraft is in distress and its location is to be determined as quickly as possible.

Annex 13 deals with Aircraft Accident and Incident Investigation.  Pursuant to the Convention, the contracting state within which the accident or incident occurs is responsible for instituting an inquiry.  The detailed requirements of the Annex include:

  • The state where the accident/incident occurred, or the state of registry if the accident/incident occurs in the high seas, is responsible for investigating, and must promptly notify all states that may be involved;
  • Responsibilities for conducting the investigation, depending on the location of the occurrence;
  • The possibility of delegating the investigation to another state;
  • How the state of occurrence must handle requests for participation in the investigation from other states; and
  • The involvement of the state of registry, operator, design and manufacture and their involvement with the investigation and the investigating state’s right to call on the best technical expertise from any source.

Legal status of SARPS

These SARPS are designed to provide international minimum standards and comprise mandatory standards, and procedures or practices which are recommended.

Despite being described as the annexes, SARPs do not form part of the Convention and are not binding of states in the way that a provision of the Convention is.  The Convention obliges contracting states to notify ICAO of any departures from international standards and procedures, and it cannot be said that contracting parties are under no obligation to conform.  On the contrary, unless a contracting party to the Convention has notified ICAO of non-compliance with an international standard, compliance can be expected.