During the early years of my captivity in Beirut in the mid-eighties I challenged my guards on aspects of their behaviour as dedicated Muslims. ‘Does it not say in the Koran,’ I asked, ‘that you must not steal?’ ‘It certainly says that,’ they replied. ‘Then how is it that you steal people from their families? You steal their lives?’ They thought for a moment and then replied, ‘We will put that question to the Chef’. The ‘Chef’ was the chief or leader of their group. A couple of weeks later they returned. ‘What did the Chef say?’ I asked, anxious for his reply. ‘He said we must not speak with you anymore!’ So that was that.

    It was hardly a satisfying answer but in speculation one must say that the young men engaged in the taking of hostages were not versed in ethical matters and I doubt that their leader was either. There are, however, ethical questions to be considered by all sides engaged in conflict. There is little doubt in my mind that the stealing of innocent life is a criminal act and ethically unacceptable. If one can accept that point, the question arises as to the position that ought to be taken in respect of a state that enters into a war, deemed to be illegal under international law, and engages in the abduction of individuals outside due process of law. Of course I have Iraq in mind. Ethically speaking, what is the difference between the abduction of an individual by insurgents in Iraq and the capture of an individual from anywhere in the world by agents of the state? Have not both parties breached ethical and legal standards? In practice the kidnapper in Iraq is hunted down whilst the state condones the action of its agents and protects them. It might well be asked why such a state should not face trial in the international court under international law. Some would answer this question by saying that the state was at war and thus the action was justified or that the state has a collective responsibility to protect its citizens and therefore is justified in its action.

    I can see no reason, however, why certain lives should be treated as more important than others. There is a poignant story that illustrated this point very clearly for me some years ago. Ken Bigley, a British subject, was abducted in Iraq and brutally murdered. I was asked to visit his elderly mother in Liverpool who at the time was ill in bed. As we spoke, news had recently reached her of the tragic death of her son. ‘Nothing,’ she said, ‘nothing can describe how I feel at this time. It is terrible to lose my son in that way. But my grief is just the same as the grief of any other mother who had lost her son in Iraq.’ She made the point.

    Today, hostage-taking falls roughly into two broad categories. On the one hand there is hostage-taking primarily for political motive. That is where the prime intent of the hostage-takers is to achieve a political goal. Hostage-taking in Beirut in the seventies would fall into that category, as would some of the hostage events in Iran in the following decade. The second category would be hostage-taking for ransom, which might be described primarily as having criminal intent. Both types of activity are of course breaches of law and criminal acts but I divide them into these two broad groupings as the way in which they are dealt with by negotiators differs.

    In examining political hostage-taking it is almost without exception symptomatic of much deeper unresolved disorders. An effective negotiator will certainly need to ask such questions as ‘What are the reasons, stated and hidden, for the taking of hostages?’ as a starter for more detailed examination of root issues. A negotiator will also be very aware that it is necessary to check carefully all assumptions made about the particular case which is being dealt with.

    Take Libya as an example. In the mid-eighties the relationship between Libya and the UK government was at an all-time low following the tragic shooting of WPC Fletcher with a weapon allegedly fired from or adjacent to the Libyan Embassy in London. Two British businessmen and an academic were detained in Libya and numerous assumptions were being made as to the reason for their detention. An investigation by the negotiator revealed that in order to obtain their release internal political complications within Libya itself had to be resolved or at the least eased. By building a relationship of trust between the negotiator and the principals in Libya and then by devising a strategy whereby the British subjects might be returned home without payment of ransom or further breach of law and some of the internal Libyan complications attended to, the matter was resolved to the satisfaction of all parties.

    The same strategy was followed when British Churchmen and women, along with their Iranian counterparts, were detained in Iran around the same time. Here, the negotiator had direct contact with Revolutionary Guards and was able to prove to their satisfaction that the reasons put forward for detaining the Church people did not hold water. Consequently the detainees were released, again without submission to extortion or further breach of ethical standards. In both quoted cases negotiations were conducted by a negotiator who was independent the British government but who had the trust of that government.

    An experienced negotiator working on political cases will recognise that often he or she will never know the complete story and it is not unusual for other foreign policy agendas to be played out by governments involved in the issue. There may well be, and frequently are, other factors which may have a greater, lesser or contributory part to play in the release or the further complicating of the situation. The Iran Contra affair is a clear case in point.

    Here, the negotiator (the writer) was, as far as he knew, the only individual from the West to have face-to-face exchanges with the hostage takers in Beirut and was attempting to work on what he had gleaned from those conversations. Unknown to him the government of the USA, working through Col. Oliver North and others, was seeking to persuade Iran to apply pressure on Hezbollah in Beirut to release American captives. Such activities were intended to be kept totally secret but came to light in the media. The result of this was that the independent negotiator lost the trust of the hostage-takers and was himself imprisoned.

    Although much hostage-taking today falls into the ransom category there continue to be cases with strong political overtones. The case of the three young people who were, allegedly, hiking on the border of Iran and were detained by Iran for allegedly being within Iran itself has fallen into the midst of a mighty political battle between the USA and Iran. The Chandlers, who, at the time of writing, continue to be held in Somalia, clearly fall into the ransom category.

    There are two main questions which need to be posed at this juncture. The first is whether all hostage negotiations should be taken completely out of the hands of governments and placed with another agency. The second is whether ransom should ever be paid for the release of innocent individuals.

    As to the first, some would argue that all governments should refuse to have anything whatsoever to do with hostage cases so that such cases are placed in the hands of a UN body or another responsible agency. This would mean that kidnappers would lose political leverage. Personally I cannot see it happening as, understandably, governments want to protect their citizens and to retain control of their foreign policy agendas. As I have tried to show, some hostage cases tend to be deeply mired in political complexity.

    Officially the British government will not submit to ransom demands and will not enter into negotiations where ransom is demanded. However, there is a thriving hostage insurance business which receives little publicity but is reputed to be worth millions. In Italy, as in Columbia, the payment of ransom is deemed to be an illegal act whereas it is widely believed that in some other countries ransom is paid. There is no single agreed position across the world. One thing is certain, however: that the payment of ransom leads to further hostage-taking. One only has to look to Nigeria and Somalia for evidence of this fact. Cases of hostage-taking in Nigeria that begin with environmental concerns frequently descend into the criminal category where payment is demanded. Ransom payment raises extremely difficult ethical questions.

    Certain premises spring to mind, however, which are straightforward: firstly, most people would agree that hostage-taking is a criminal act and cannot be morally justified. Secondly, in the case of Somalia it is important that sea lanes are kept open for international commerce and, thirdly, active steps therefore ought to be taken by nations to prevent piracy – using force if necessary.

    Many people would agree with these points but a second set of related points raise even more complex issues: firstly, on no account should ransom be paid; and those who take hostages should, whenever apprehended, always be punished. Secondly, protecting the lives of innocent hostages is of paramount importance. So, thirdly, nations should…?

    Writing in the online Ethics Newsline Carl Hausman outlines the two sets of premises above and suggests that they are at odds with each other. Should nations put the needs of the whole community above the safety of their own citizens or should they refuse to put at risk the lives of noncombatants who have not signed up for military service? Must they be willing to sacrifice the lives of innocent hostages or must they value the life of each citizen above the principles of international trade?

    Hausman argues that both positions are right, though it is hard to follow his logic. The captain of a ship, recently released after ransom was paid, perhaps understandably, said that the safety of his crew was his primary concern and he would do anything to ensure their safety. Payment ensured their safety but, through direct encouragement of piracy, endangered the lives of untold others. In effect, therefore, individual salvation is purchased at the loss of the safety of others.

    So, one returns to the question of what nations should do. Payment of ransom may be seen, rather than as a right-versus-wrong issue, as a right-versus-right dilemma. At times nations will negotiate and at times they will attack. Somalia is of course a failed state and out of the chaos of failure criminal gangs have developed and taken advantage of the situation by engaging in acts of piracy. As there is no agreed effective international response to deal with failed states, mayhem continues. The long-term solution lies in dealing with the root issue but in the meantime the dilemma outlined above has to be faced and lived with.

    Given that both types of hostage-taking (political and criminal) are, in themselves, criminal acts, a case could be made that perpetrators be sought and prosecuted by those responsible for global law and order. Article 12 of the International Convention against the Taking of Hostages makes it clear that prosecution should take place with the following exception:

    ‘…the present Convention shall not apply to an act of hostage-taking committed in the course of armed conflicts as defined in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Protocols thereto, including armed conflicts mentioned in article 1, paragraph 4, of Additional Protocol I of 1977, in which peoples are fighting against colonial domination and alien occupation and against racist regimes in the exercise of their right of self-determination, as enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and the Declaration of Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among States in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.’

    This leaves the interesting question of whom, if anyone, ought to be sought and prosecuted for extraordinary rendition. This may turn on whether the war in Iraq was legal.

    As for the question of a body independent of government taking responsibility for all hostage cases, I cannot see it happening for the reasons I have given. It is however an idea worthy of further debate and discussion.