There should be zero tolerance for hostage takers

There should be zero tolerance for hostage takers

There should be zero tolerance for hostage takers
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori arriving in England on March 17, 2022, after being freed from Iran. (AFP file)
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The Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the British House of Commons reported last month on an inquiry it had undertaken on combating state hostage diplomacy. Although based on the UK’s recent experiences in dealing with the seizure of its citizens by Iran, the implications of the report go wider, and should provide food for thought for other states who have their citizens caught up in international detentions, as well as the wider world community which has some responsibility to stop this practice.

A definition of hostage taking is supplied in the report as “any person who seizes or detains, and threatens to kill, injure or continue to detain another person in order to compel a third party, … to do or abstain from doing any act as an explicit or implicit condition for their release.” It is difficult to obtain actual numbers of those so targeted, as some are known, and others unknown, as the states whose citizens they are, and the families of those involved, work out the best way to respond to their detention publicly or privately — the first cruel responsibility imposed upon them. What we do know is that a variety of countries have been dealing with such seizures, a small number of states are the perpetrators, and the numbers and risks are growing.

It made uncomfortable reading for the British government, and for me as a former minister with personal knowledge of those detained during my time in office. We did not always get things right. But the report is unequivocal that the principal responsibility for such hostage taking and detentions lies squarely with the state seizing the citizen, and with that state alone. They should never be able to shift blame or make excuses for their actions.

The issue is rightly emotive. Away from the high-level state implications, justifications, denials, and mutually hostile accusations, such seizures usually involve the lives of citizens with little or no connection to the workings of government in the states from where they come. For the time they are detained those human lives are destroyed or damaged for no reason whatsoever to do with them, as wicked a denial of the worth of human lives as may be imagined. They rarely suffer simply on their own. Pulled into that web of despair are usually family considerations, perhaps cynically calculated to add to the rationale for seizing them in the first place and adding to supposed pressure to achieve a political end.

No state guilty of such practices should be let near any formal position of recognition and leadership of international or regional bodies.

Alistair Burt

The best known recent British case involved Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a young mother separated from her child for six long years as an element in a challenging relationship between the UK and Iran, and ultimately to secure the payment of an historic debt legally owed by Britain to Iran since 1979. That the debt should have been paid earlier but for sanctions and other complications should have been irrelevant to the case of a woman wrongly and unfairly detained. It is just this action in making an innocent mother pay the price of other issues that states should be settling in other ways which should make hostage taking an international pariah activity.

The report makes some domestic recommendations, though they would be good practice anywhere. It recommends that the government ensure it communicates more intensively with families than we did, which must be right. It also recommends that having one senior figure responsible for all such detentions, to build up expertise and experience, and also be internationally recognised, as with the US President’s Special Envoy, might enhance the UK’s handling.

On the difficult issue of whether to make all such cases public, the report comes down on the side of doing so, but I remain unsure of that. We had instances of private negotiations being successful, and some families may prefer it that way. But is a hard call.

That call might be made easier if a further recommendation were followed, which is for greater and consistent international collaboration and condemnation of such practices, thus making public awareness of them a real concern to the perpetrators. This is essential. But I would go further. No state guilty of such practices should be let near any formal position of recognition and leadership of international or regional bodies, let alone UN Human Rights Committees. And those working to improve relations with states guilty of such practices, which may have ultimate benefit diplomatically, should make the ending of such practices a bottom line to their new relationship.

The report’s conclusion that “state hostage taking is part of a wider erosion of the rules based international order” is correct. Those who see that the protection of their citizens is a first call in an ordered world should redouble their efforts to protect them from this scourge.

Alistair Burt is a former UK Member of Parliament who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State from 2010 to 2013 and as Minister of State for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK

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