Mission Unclear: What to do about a rise in global use of “hostage diplomacy”

This article is part of a series on Individuals and Global Diplomacy. Look for the next article in next month’s issue of the Political Review.

Imagine a Mission Impossible movie where instead of Tom Cruise being the only person who can save the world, it’s a random citizen—let’s call him Bob. And instead of having an army of personal trainers and stunt coordinators and dentists to fix the tooth exactly in the center of his face, Bob has no idea what’s going on. In reality, he’s a scapegoat for the problems of behemoth world powers who can’t engage in all-out war with each other. Oh, and Bob is also locked up. Mission Unclear: Hostage Diplomacy. Coming soon to a theater near you.

Last year saw an uptick in international use of what might kindly be described as “hostage diplomacy,” or unkindly described as “having a temper tantrum, blaming your problems on an often innocent citizen of another country, and imprisoning them.” China has imprisoned, and in some cases sentenced to death, Americans and Canadians. Other Americans and Canadians are jailed in Iran and Russia, the U.S. has filed charges against Russian and Chinese citizens, Chinese nationals are behind bars in Canada and Poland, and so on [1]. Everyone is in on the game, presumably because taking hostages on trumped-up charges when you’re angry is better than escalating trade or diplomatic disagreements to full-on war.

This is not to say that hostage diplomacy is anything new: on the contrary, hostage-taking has been a rich part of international affairs since the beginning of civilization. The great draw of, and the great problem with, taking, exchanging, and holding hostages is that it can be incredibly effective. While hostage negotiations are complicated and can take years to hammer out, historically, countries in weaker diplomatic and/or military positions have been able to use hostages as leverage to achieve military or diplomatic ends. Take the Iran-Contra affair in 1986, for example, where Lebanese Iranian proxies took 24 Americans hostage and got guided missiles in return for their release—a pattern that repeated itself during the same administration (President Reagan’s) and in a 2016 hostage negotiation by President Obama’s administration [5].

Hostage negotiations can have a dehumanizing effect as well, in the sense that they can coldly rank the diplomatic importance of someone’s life. Take, for example, the Turkish capture and subsequent release of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson. Media coverage and lobbying for his release took the U.S. by storm, and after sanctions were placed against Turkey, Brunson was released in October 2018. No explanation has been given for why two other U.S. citizens—a NASA scientist and professor—detained at least as long as Brunson, remain imprisoned in Turkey [7].

The U.S. has no coordinated effort to deal with hostage situations. In some cases, like that of war correspondent James Foley, who was captured in 2012 in Syria and executed in 2014, an inability to cut through bureaucratic red tape is one of the primary reasons a hostage is not brought home. In another case, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian did make it home, in part because a secret, back-channel negotiation was set up without the knowledge of many of the top political leaders in the United States [6].  

According to C.N.N., there are currently at least 9 Americans detained in Iran, Russia, and Turkey, with more detained in other countries worldwide [2]. One U.S. resident detained in Iran, Nizar Zakka, is in the middle of a now weeks-long hunger strike to protest the humanitarian conditions facing him and his fellow inmates, as well as their continued incarceration [3]. In Venezuela, five American business executives imprisoned since 2017 faced a preliminary hearing at the end of February, a hearing which has been delayed 12 times already. No word has been given at the time of publication whether that hearing has actually happened [4].

Official United States hostage policy was laid out by an Obama-era executive order, PPD-30 [8]. This document, among other things, establishes the country’s policy of making “no concessions”—although this line becomes blurry when we’re dealing with states versus groups, or diplomatic versus monetary concessions—and our commitment to bringing U.S. hostages home [9]. But this is not enough. The U.S. needs a more coordinated, clear, and codified approach to hostage negotiations. Counterintuitively, part of this new policy must be a reduction in international press coverage of hostages. The more press coverage a hostage gets, the higher the asking price often is.

The use of hostage diplomacy may never go away, but clarified, codified assurance that the U.S. government is in fact doing all it can for all hostages abroad would be a step in the right direction.

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[1]https://www.axios.com/international-arrests-poland-china-hostage-diplomacy-e1f249f0-6a45-430d-88e2-aed7ce4ecfc3.html

[2]https://www-m.cnn.com/2013/07/04/world/detained-americans-fast-facts/index.html?r=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F

[3]https://pjmedia.com/yellowribbonproject/u-s-hostage-held-by-iran-on-17th-day-of-his-seventh-hunger-strike/

[4]https://www.foxnews.com/world/fate-of-american-citgo-executives-held-in-venezuela-up-in-the-air-as-maduros-regime-plunges-deeper-into-crisis

[5]https://www.newsweek.com/obama-does-arms-hostages-deal-just-reagan-417443

[6]https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/how-to-bring-hostages-home-theres-no-simple-answer/2019/02/21/bec0aae8-2898-11e9-b2fc-721718903bfc_story.html?utm_term=.65789c02fb59

[7] https://warontherocks.com/2018/08/the-pastor-is-not-the-only-u-s-hostage-in-turkey/

[8]https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/06/24/fact-sheet-us-government-hostage-policy

[9]https://warontherocks.com/2019/02/no-concessions-a-closer-look-at-u-s-hostage-recovery-policy/

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Sage Smiley

Writer at BYU Political Review
Sage Smiley is an earthy gal from Portland, Oregon. Sage is a double major in journalism and Arabic and minoring in chemistry. She feels passionately about refugees, feminism, and the fact that orcas are still kept in tiny tanks. Sage enjoys long walks through Savers, tea, odd socks, sushi, and witty banter.

Sage Smiley

Sage Smiley is an earthy gal from Portland, Oregon. Sage is a double major in journalism and Arabic and minoring in chemistry. She feels passionately about refugees, feminism, and the fact that orcas are still kept in tiny tanks. Sage enjoys long walks through Savers, tea, odd socks, sushi, and witty banter.

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