Paying Ransoms

The case of Judith Tebbutt, the hostage recently released from the clutches of Somalian pirates, has cast doubt on Britain’s ransom policy, but paying hostage-takers ignores the deeper roots of the crime.

Paying ransom for hostages is causing the crime to flourish

Terry Waite for The Guardian

There is no doubt whatsoever that Judith Tebbutt, the hostage recently released from the clutches of Somalian pirates, is a brave and resilient woman. She was seized while on holiday with her husband in the remote Kenyan coastal resort of Lamu, when tragically her husband was shot and killed. For much of her captivity, Tebbutt did not know of this fact and the manner in which she conducted herself on her release after hearing this terrible news does her much credit. She now deserves time to come to terms with her newfound freedom.

Mercifully Tebbutt was released, but in Somalia alone there are more than 200 captives whose spouses and families back home wait anxiously for their return. Many of these people live in the Philippines and other seafaring nations and have limited resources on which to draw while they wait for the return of their partners. A recent estimate I was given said that at any one time, there are more than 3,000 hostages held in different parts of the world. That may well be a conservative figure.

All hostage-taking is an act of criminality, but for the sake of clarity it can be divided into two categories. On the one hand, there is political hostage-taking, sometimes referred to as terrorism. In this type of activity, hostage-takers hold innocent people as bargaining counters in order to achieve a political goal. Alternatively, they may hold hostages to intimidate or terrorise those whom they perceive to be their opponents. The second category, which has increased in recent years, is hostage-taking for ransom, and is conducted by criminal gangs intent on profiting financially from their activities.

Most of my own past negotiations were conducted with the first group of hostage-takers. In 1980s Iran, I negotiated directly with revolutionary guards for the release of Anglicans who had fallen foul of the new regime. Direct discussions took place in an atmosphere that was highly politically charged and where no ransom was demanded or paid. I had to find a political compromise that was acceptable to both parties and, for my part, which did not involve a compromise of principle – no bending of law, no ransom payment and no submission to blackmail. Not an easy task but an achievable one, as their eventual release indicated.

Today, most hostage-taking is conducted with criminal intent when payment for release is demanded. This raises the thorny question of ransom payment. The British government quite rightly takes the position that it will not pay for the release of captives. If the government paid ransoms, I believe it would lead to further hostage-taking and encourage further breach of law. However, I can understand the agonies faced by a family where a ransom is demanded and appears to be the only means of obtaining release.

With the above in mind, it is necessary to recognise that hostage-taking normally rises from deeper roots. In the case of the failed state of Somalia, law and order have broken down and traditional industries have collapsed, leading to a situation where criminal gangs rule the day.

Hostage-taking with political motives frequently descends into hostage-taking with criminal intent. Nigeria, which leads the global stakes on hostage-taking, is a case in point. Originally much activity was political, centred around environmental issues and directed against oil companies in an effort to challenge environmental pollution. That quickly changed, and hostage-taking for ransom is now predominant.

Mexico is another hotbed of criminal activity, noted for its extreme brutality.

The vast majority of hostage cases are concluded within a matter of days and go unreported, but substantial sums change hands – a great environment for the flourishing hostage-insurance industry. Some negotiators will argue that ransom payment does not lead to further abductions. Personally I take the opposite view as I do believe it encourages the crime.

In recent years, both the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and UK police forces have taken active and positive steps to give adequate support to British families who have suffered as a result of a family member being captured. Hostage UK, which I jointly founded some years ago, is active in the field of family support. Our experience is that a family benefits greatly from being in touch with someone who has been a hostage themselves.

Hostage-taking continues to be a major problem, and I do not foresee that it will diminish considerably in the near future. Even though the number of individuals taken is considerable, the chances of being abducted are mercifully rare. However, caution needs to be exercised by anyone who travels to dangerous parts of the world.

Terry Waite is the former special envoy to the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was held captive in Beirut from 1987 to 1991

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