Getting to Nyet.
In this week’s Not in Dispatches, we look at so-called “hostage diplomacy” – the practice of states arresting foreign nationals, often on trumped-up charges, to gain leverage over their adversaries.
Hostage diplomacy is perhaps as old as diplomacy itself. After the Persian Wars, the Greeks took hostages from Aegina to ensure their commitment to Athens. The Romans took hostages from barbarian tribes – usually the sons of leading men – to control newly conquered people. And in ancient China, hostages would often be given up as tribute to the emperor.
Traditionally, it has been the weaker party that have taken hostages.
Terrorists, criminals, and pirates have long kidnapped foreigners for a wide range of reasons – usually to make money, or make a point. Julius Caesar spent 38 days in captivity after being captured by pirates. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams debated the merits of paying ransoms over Americans held captive by Barbary corsairs in 1785. And insurgents – from Hezbollah in Lebanon, to the FARC in Colombia, to various groups during the Second Iraq War – have often taken hostages to generate leverage against the powers that be.
Hostage-taking is also a stock-in-trade for “quasi-states”. Since returning to power in Afghanistan, the Taliban has detained multiple Americans and Europeans. The Houthis in Yemen recently took 25 crew members hostage during a seizure of an Israel-linked ship in the Red Sea. And, of course, Hamas abducted around 250 people from Israel to the Gaza Strip during its horrific attacks of 7 October.
In recent years, however, it has been the “great power” enemies of the West that have become the main practitioners of hostage diplomacy.
Indeed, today, more than twice as many Americans are currently held by states than by militants. And that ratio, as well as the total number of victims, is growing.
The reason is the changing nature of geopolitical conflict.
During the so-called “War on Terror”, the United States was focused on fighting non-state actors, whereas today its greatest competition is with other states. No surprise then that the most frequent state practitioners of hostage-taking are America’s strategic competitors – Russia, China and Iran – as well as other hostile albeit less powerful states, such as Venezuela, North Korea and Myanmar.
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While Russia, China and Iran all use hostage-taking as a tactic, they often do so for different strategic reasons, with each case having its own particular motivations.
But the end result is always the same: foreign citizens becoming unwitting pawns in geopolitical spats.
Russia arrested the American basketball player Brittney Griner on drug importation charges to engineer a prisoner swap with the notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout. The FSB may have also had a prisoner swap in mind when it arrested the American journalist Evan Gershkovich – but it was likely just as concerned with deterring Moscow’s foreign press corps from reporting on its war in Ukraine.
Incidentally, Putin’s comments this week to Tucker Carlson, suggesting that Gershkovich could be swapped for a Russian assassin imprisoned in Berlin, may show the contours of a possible deal. But Putin was more likely trying to drive a wedge between America and Europe, knowing such a deal would be politically difficult and legally almost impossible for Germany. Putin was more likely employing “psy-ops” than going “open kimono."
China’s arrest and detention of two Canadians for over 1,000 days was a direct response to Canadian authorities arresting a Huawei executive. A Chinese-Australian journalist was arrested and held largely without consular access for over three years after bilateral relations soured after then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanded explanations from China about the emergence of the COVID-19 virus.
Iran has used hostage diplomacy to secure some good deals.
Last year, five American citizens were released after five years in exchange for the Biden administration allowing the transfer of $6 billion in Iranian oil revenues held in sanctioned accounts, as well as the release of five Iranians imprisoned in the United States. In 2022, the UK agreed to wipe a historical military debt of £400 million to secure the release of two dual nationals. The 2015 Iran nuclear deal included the release of four prisoners from Iran. A British-Australian academic was only released in exchange for three Iranian terrorists convicted in Thailand. And the 52 American diplomats held hostage by the newly established Islamic Republic were only released after 444 days – the day Jimmy Carter left office.
But it is not only the West’s sworn enemies who engage in hostage diplomacy. In recent years, even some of its putative allies – Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – have taken Western citizens hostages and used these to extract concessions.
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Deal or no deal
Hostage-taking by states like Russia, China and Iran puts Western countries in a bind.
On the one hand, they wish to do everything they can to get their citizens home. On the other, this often comes at a serious price – both in the immediate concessions that they may make, and the precedent poor deals could set.
The Viktor Bout-Brittney Griner exchange - a basketball player held for importing hash the size of a raisin for a convicted arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death” (who supplied arms to Al Qaeda, the Taliban and various African civil wars) – exemplifies the difficult trade-offs governments must make. And Western governments are painfully conscious that such deals encourage greater hostage taking by hostile states.
For this reason, many are now working to establish greater deterrence.
The United States has created a special presidential envoy for hostage cases, established new interagency coordination bodies, and legislated criteria to make determinations about who is a “wrongfully detained person”.
Canada has launched a “declaration against arbitrary detention in state-to-state relations” – now signed onto by 70 countries – whose aim is to “enhance international cooperation and end the practice of arbitrary arrest, detention or sentencing to exercise leverage over foreign governments”.
And likeminded governments the world over are exploring the creation of a multilateral coalition to pool various dimensions of power – diplomatic, military, economic, financial and law enforcement – that can take collective action in response to hostage taking by an aggressor country.
But whether diplomats can stamp out a practice as old as diplomacy itself remains to be seen. The good money is on hostage diplomacy becoming a more regular feature of international relations. As a matter of prudence, businesses should not only be aware of the nature of hostage diplomacy but take actions to avoid their staff falling victim to it.
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