Head to Head: Hostage Ransoms

‘Reality cheques’

The politics of hostage-taking and negotiation have always been fraught with difficulty. With each individual hostage situation comes new problems that have to be surmounted in attempts to ensure the safe release of victims. One of the key issues governments must face is whether or not to negotiate with hostage-takers. Governments of countries such as Britain and America adopt a firm stance refusing to make concessions of any sort. Although they are justified in not conceding to demands that are political in nature, such as the release of prisoners, in situations which are purely monetary, the principle of non-negotiation does far more harm than good.
The main justification used to defend their stance is the belief that payment of ransoms will encourage further hostage-takings. However this need not be the case. By following correct procedures and keeping the payment of ransoms secret which, given it is in the interest of both governments and hostage-takers alike, is a realistic endeavour, the safe release of hostages and the future safety of citizens can be ensured.
The reality is that, regardless of whether ransom payments are being made or not, hostage-taking will continue to occur. Although diplomacy should be considered paramount, once diplomatic avenues are exhausted governments must be prepared to consider the payment of ransoms and their point-blank refusal to do so has time and time again led to the prolonged suffering and tragic deaths of innocent citizens.
The plight of the British couple Paul and Rachel Chandler, who were taken hostage by Somali pirates over five months ago, is one such case. The refusal to pay the ransom has led to the Chandlers’ ordeal of being held for over 152 days in captivity in the Somalia desert and the violation of their fundamental rights to freedom, and resulted in both prolonged psychological and physical trauma. This must be considered an unacceptable injustice on the part of the British government, when they could so easily secure the release of the couple by the simple payment of a ransom.
Indeed the payment of ransoms has been proven as the most effective and successful method of ensuring the safe release of hostages. The prominent kidnap of five-year-old British citizen Sahil Saeed in Pakistan is most recent testament to this. The case of Sahil sparked international interest and speculation with false reports of his release, acquisitions of the involvement of his family in his kidnap and rumours regarding the payment of a ransom. However out of the speculation it emerged that the payment of a ransom of some £110,000 had led to the release of Sahil and the subsequent arrest in Spain of those involved in his kidnap. Fortunately in this case government principles were not allowed to be valued above the life of an innocent five-year-old.
Ultimately when deciding on whether ransoms should be paid, it comes down to how much a human life is worth. By refusing to pay ransoms, governments are quite literally gambling with human lives.

Louise Fitzgerald


‘Slippery slopes’

The recent Pakistani abduction of a British child, Sahil Saeed, by armed robbers from his grandmother’s home in Punjab has sparked worldwide interest. The abductors reportedly demanded £100,000 in ransom to be paid for the child’s safe return. The whole institution, if one could call it that, of ransom and kidnapping invite a very interesting debate. Should the ransom be paid? And if it should, who should pay it? This is not the first time this debate has surfaced and I am sure it won’t be the last but I have to argue that these ransoms should not be paid. It’s not a minority view, virtually all governments back the argument of not negotiating with abductors and they discourage third parties from doing so also.
The big picture needs to be looked at when discussing this issue. While it may seem cruel not to pay the ransom, by paying a precedent is set. For example, say an Irish citizen is abducted tomorrow and the ransom is a million euro, should the government pay? It’s a slippery slope because by agreeing to pay a ransom and deal with the abductors, a government is opening itself and its citizens to further danger. Suddenly every Irish citizen becomes a target because the Irish government has showed its willingness to pay ransoms, thus endangering a whole lot more people. So, while it may seem harsh by not paying the ransom you are taking a hardline approach to the abductors and showing them that the government is not willing to negotiate with what is essentially a form of terrorism. By not paying, potentially hundreds of lives and millions of euro could be saved.
In monetary terms, if the ransom were paid, the money would only go back into abductions or other unsavoury things, like international human trafficking or the drug trade. By paying a ransom, the government or third party are in some way endorsing what these abductors do and serving to further their cause. Another monetary issue is whether governments could actually afford the ransoms in the long run. If the initial ransoms are paid, it would only fuel abductors to ask for more and more money as abductions intensified. Ireland, for example, is probably in enough debt as it is and not to drag up the “economic downturn” line, but truly it would be prohibitively expensive to pay what would eventually end up as a series of ransoms.
From the point of view of the government, several political reasons exist for not paying ransoms. Central to this is that if a government initially pays ransoms but decides to stop when a limit is reached, there would be a severe backlash from the public. The government would be vilified for paying and then again when they decide to stop paying ransoms. Questions would begin to be asked about government actions, thus undermining government power.
The argument most people put forward in favour of paying ransoms is usually that if they were held hostage, they would want the government to do something. Sadly, this is not feasible. While people may hate to hear it, the bigger picture – the safety of all a country’s citizens must be taken into account and paying a ransom would cause many more problems in the long term than what it would solve.

James Kelly