Hostage-taking - should you pay?

Should governments and employers negotiate with kidnappers? If they do not, how can they free hostages?

Somali pirates board the French yacht Tanit in April 2009.
Somali pirates board the French yacht Tanit in April 2009. REUTERS/Joseph Guyler Delva

The British government has a firm policy that it does not negotiate with kidnappers. The problem is that negotiating is often the only way to keep people alive.

“We judge that substantive concessions lead to more hostage-taking, not less,” the Foreign and Commonwealth Office says in a statement. “This is not an easy policy to follow – sometimes it is agonising – but it is right.”

Special feature: Should ransoms be paid to kidnappers?

Some security experts have criticised this stance, saying that it does not seem to act as a deterrent and that the government’s unwillingness to outsource negotiation is costing lives. 

“Kidnappers do it either to get money or a political concession,” says a security specialist with substantial experience of international kidnap, extortion and Iraq security issues post-2003, speaking under condition of anonymity. “They will not release hostages, unless they are forced to by an armed intervention or an unlikely fit of conscience, unless they get at least something. If you tell the kidnappers on day one that you will not talk or deal you are greatly contributing to the hostages’ demise”

Canon Andrew White agrees. White, who is known as the vicar of Baghdad, has been involved in147 kidnap cases and recovered 43 hostages.

“It’s not great,” he says. “But it’s better than anyone else.” He used to be dead against paying a ransom, but he has changed his mind.

“If you pay you get them back alive, and if you don’t they get killed. Simple as that,” he says.

The Italian embassy in Iraq, for example, gave White 40 million dollars (30 million euros) in cash to take to the kidnappers of two Italian aid workers Simona Pari and Simona Torretta. But for British hostages there is no such easy way out.

Hostage negotiation aims to transfer an unreasonable demand to a reasonable one – for example moving from the return of prisoners to a ransom, according to the security expert.

“If you’re not prepared to negotiate with terrorists, it’s very simple: get someone else to do it for you,” he says.

British IT expert Peter Moore was released from captivity at the end of last year. The Shia-Muslim group which kidnapped him along with his four bodyguards had two demands. The withdrawal of British troops from Iraq and the release of Laith and Qais al-Khazali, militia commanders of Asaib al-Haq. The release of the Khazalis was happening anyway as the US government started handing prisoners to the Iraqi government.

White was told that Moore’s bodyguards were shot dead when an armed raid came to rescue them and the kidnappers needed to get out quickly. When hostage recovery is limited to armed intervention, the chances of rescue narrow dramatically.

“They never know exactly where the kidnappers are,” said White.

Of course, there is a danger that substantive concessions will lead to more kidnappings, although White says the practice would never disappear, even if no one ever negotiated with terrorists.

Journalist Charles Glass was kidnapped by the Shia-Muslim armed group Hizbollah in Lebanon in 1987. He says he was a victim of the US policy of shipping weapons to Iran in exchange for hostages, which blew up into the Iran-Contra scandal. By the time Glass was kidnapped, this practice had been exposed and no one tried to negotiate his release.

“They kidnapped me, I think in the hope that they could still get something, but in the event they didn’t get anything,” he says. “I have to say that every time the United States sent two missiles to Iran, a hostage would be released but then they would pick up two more.”

But, he adds, the French and German governments, which negotiated for hostages in Lebanon in the 1980s, talked to Hizbollah and got almost all of their hostages back alive. South Korea refused and their man was killed.

“The British government has a longstanding policy of hypocrisy,” says Glass, citing the case of members of the Anglican clergy who were kidnapped in Tehran and apparently released after Church of England mediation. In the event, some British tanks made their way via Switzerland to Iran.

Now it seems the British government has gone too far the other way. In Somalia, a British couple, Paul and Rachel Chandler, have been held hostage by pirates since October.

Nick Davis, the chairman of the Merchant Maritime Warfare Centre has negotiated with the pirates for a £100,000 (110,000 euro) ransom. This compared to the going rate for a merchant ship of three million dollars (two million euros).

“The Somali diaspora is trying to talk to the clan elders. Yeah, great, very noble,” he says. “But that’s not how this business mechanism works, which is extortion for vessels and crew.”

He stresses it is extortion rather than terrorism and says it should be thought of as expenses. It is costing the pirates to keep the Chandlers alive; they had thought a British yacht in their waters would contain rich people but, unfortunately for everyone involved, the Chandlers cannot afford a large ransom and, worse still, Davis needs the Foreign Office’s help to make the ransom payment.

The only way to get them out is by sea, which means the Foreign Office needs to allow a naval warship to be in the right place at the right time to pick the freed hostages up.

“It’s completely needless that they are continually being held and we’re in a stalemate situation,” says Davis. “The pirates won’t give in and won’t let them go for nothing and the Foreign Office is advising the family not to pay a ransom. It’s a ridiculous situation.”


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