Issue 185: 2019 01 17: Hostage Taking

17 January 2019

Hostage Taking

Back to the 14th Century.

By Robert Kilconner

In 14th century warfare, considerable importance was attached to the taking of prisoners.  Important rich prisoners, that is, not the rank and file or “useless mouths” who generally got slaughtered.  Still, a rich ransom might follow if you captured a noblemen, or he might be bought from you by the King to be held as a hostage if he was sufficiently important.  Possession of a top hostage – say King John of France after Poitiers, or James 1 of Scotland after his capture at sea – gave obvious political leverage, but even at a lower level, hostages and the possibility of their maltreatment could be used to exert pressure on their friends, relatives and fellow citizens to behave in a particular way.  If that pressure was unsuccessful it was not unusual for them to be executed.

Now, some 600 years later, we seem to be back in the same place with the Iranians holding Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, possibly as a bargaining counter in negotiations about an arms deal, and the Chinese saying that they will execute Canadian Robert Schellenberg, a death sentence which is surely linked to the arrest by the Canadian authorities of Huawei’s Ms Meng for alleged sanctions busting.

It is all very unpleasant and the difficult thing is to know what to do about it.  The obvious starting position is to exert diplomatic pressure but, huff and puff as you may, it is hard to get past the response that the individuals concerned are simply being dealt with in accordance with the local system of justice.  That may not be true, or in some cases it may only be partly true, but true or not it clothes the treatment of the hostage with the fig leaf of respectability that those holding him or her need to justify themselves in the eyes of their own public.

So, what else can be done?  Occasionally there is the possibility of a military solution, a raid like that on Entebbe, but that must be rare where the hostage-taker is a sovereign state rather than a group of hijackers.  Reciprocal hostage taking would feed a vicious circle, quite apart from the moral repugnance one would feel for it.  Giving in may deal with the problem in hand but makes the overall position worse, as rewarding the hostage-taker is bound to make hostage taking a more attractive strategy in the future.  With an international trade war looming between the US and China it is a particularly unattractive possibility.  One can imagine a sequence of sanctions and hostage taking spiralling out of control.

Although the problem is most acute for the hostages and their families, there is a broader perspective too.  An increase in hostage taking would make foreign travel a far more dangerous undertaking and restrict people from visiting other countries.  Who will want to travel abroad if they may become a hostage?  And yet it is important that people visit each other’s countries if we are to break down barriers of mutual suspicion and to counter zenophobia.  A world where we judge other cultures by what comes over the internet and from our television screens would be a bleak place indeed.  Anyway, international travel is essential to global trade and there are enough restrictions on that at the moment without adding to them.

So from all points of view we have to do all we can to combat hostage taking and, in the absence of a more direct alternative, that means that we have to make it ineffective.  So although foreign ministers may protest and try to ease the climb-down of the hostage-taker by negotiation, they must be careful not to give so much that the hostage taking can seem to have worked.  That is a tragic answer for hostages and their dependents, and one can only feel sorry for them.  In the end, however, it is a line which has to be held.


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