In recent weeks, Islamic State militants have decapitated American and British hostages, while four French journalists held by some of the same captors were released earlier this year. A former U.S. ambassador to Mali has said the French government paid $17 million to free the French hostages who were kidnapped in Niger in 2010 and subsequently handed over to Al Qaeda.
The latest hostage shown in an ISIS propaganda video is British journalist John Cantlie. In the video Cantlie says European hostages were freed because of actions taken by their governments. The assumption is that the actions to which he refers have to do with paying a ransom for the release of hostages. That is something Canada, Britain and the U.S. have asserted they will not do. The killing of the American journalist James Foley, a few months after the release of his European colleagues held captive alongside him, has underlined the disparities in national policies towards paying ransom, and leads us to examine the merits of such policies.
Hostage-taking is defined under international law (International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages, adopted December 17, 1979) as the seizing or detaining and threatening to kill, injure, or continue to detain a person in order to compel a third party to do or abstain from doing any act as an explicit or implicit condition for the release of the seized or detained person. In 2013, all major western countries signed an accord reinforced by a UN Security Council resolution, not to pay ransom to terrorist groups for hostages. However, by all appearances, only the US and the UK have stuck to that commitment. Other European states – including France, Italy, Spain and Germany – have found ways of channeling money to militant groups in exchange for the release of their citizens.
According to reliable sources, Al Qaeda and its direct affiliates have taken in at least $125 million in revenue from kidnappings since 2008, of which $66 million was paid just last year. The countries that have a policy of not paying ransom for hostages claim that payment of ransom money has unintended but inevitable consequences. The most obvious is that the money paid funds terrorist organizations and furthers their goals. Additionally, the paying of ransom inflates the price for other captives, putting the cost beyond the reach of families or employers trying to negotiate privately.
But those who question the policy of not paying ransom argue that when a human life is at stake a government has an obligation to do anything in its power to save that life. On July 31, 2009, three Americans, Joshua Fattal (27), Sarah Shourd (32), and Shane Bauer (28) were taken into custody by Iranian border guards for crossing into Iran while hiking near the Iranian border in Iraqi Kurdistan. Iran subsequently claimed the three were spies but was never able to offer any evidence to support its contention. Sarah Shourd was released 14 months later on “humanitarian grounds.” Fattal and Bauer were convicted of “illegal entry” and “espionage” two years after their arrest and each sentenced to eight years in prison. However, both were released on September 21, 2011 after payment of 5 billion rial (about US$465,000) bail which was arranged by the Sultan of Oman. Regarding the US policy of not paying ransom for hostages, Fattal has said that “[a]s someone who was held and who was released in part because of a ransom, it seems like it’s important to have the U.S. government be supporting U.S. citizens abroad.”
Those against giving in to the terrorists demands argue that paying ransoms backfires because once a ransom gets paid, the terrorist group has an incentive to take more hostages from your country. So if a country’s goal is to prevent its citizens from being kidnapped by terrorist groups, the argument goes, the wisest thing to do is to set a policy of not paying ransoms. If terrorist groups think the country will pay, they will be likely they are to abduct its people. On the other hand, given the way these kidnappings often take place, namely, that terrorist groups just kidnap a group of people, often not knowing their nationalities, and then decide what to do with their captives, the question of incentive to kidnap depending of nationality is irrelevant.
There are no easy answers to the question of whether to pay ransom to terrorist groups for hostages; however, one has to wonder, if terrorists kidnapped President Obama’s daughters would a ransom be paid? Would a third country be given authority to negotiate their release? Or would their fates be determined by their captors’ wishes?