THE BLOG

Hostage Diplomacy

There are few acts of diplomacy more striking than a former American president swooping in to the world's most forbidding nation to rescue two women from years of imprisonment and hard labor. If Hollywood produced it, it would almost seem trite. Even Bill Clinton's harshest critic should celebrate this rescue as triumphant and humane. But as the women's families breathe a sigh of relief, a nagging question remains: has Bill Clinton just made the world a more dangerous place?

Inside government, where I once worked as a diplomat, no crisis is greater than a hostage crisis. It's the phone call that every official dreads, usually from the local embassy saying that nationals have been taken. A well-oiled system swings into action: senior officials -- and usually the president himself -- will be urgently informed. Emergency meetings are immediately convened; how a government responds in the first moments can be critical.

Kidnappings are going on today in Somalia, Iraq, Colombia, as well as North Korea. Wherever hostages are taken, governments face the same desperate -- and intractable -- dilemmas. As governments frantically decide how to react, the families of the hostages will be in all-too-imaginable distress. If the press get hold of the story, the pressure for governments to respond -- in any way possible -- grows immense. Should we respond publicly, but thereby immediately giving the hostage-takers the attention they seek? Should we attempt to free them by force? But military action is usually discarded as too risky: remember the disastrous US attempt to free the Tehran embassy hostages in 1980.

Ransoms pose similar dilemmas. It's easy to declare that no ransoms should be paid when it's not your husband or daughter who's in captivity, sometimes under threat of death. I once debriefed a European hostage who had been held for years by a terrorist gang in Lebanon. His suffering was immense. He wept to mention his gratitude to the official who had organized the secret pay-off to get him out.

Absent better options, governments will often seek a messy and unsatisfactory way out. They may offer some concessions, and ideally in secret, in the hope that this doesn't leak and encourage others. Kim Jong Il was rewarded for his hostage-taking with a visit by a prominent American leader. The Administration may insist that no substantive policy concessions were made (and we may never know), but the visit alone was a kind of ransom payment. We can be sure that North Korea will continue to take "prisoners," whether from the South or better yet, America, and will seek concessions for their release. All over the world, hostage-takers, whether states, terrorists or pirates, are being regularly paid off, hush-hush, without fanfare. The message is clear: hostage-taking gets results. Tehran, Hizbollah and Pyongyang, and other violent groups across the world, will be taking notes.

Somehow the whole world is in the grip of the hostage-takers: no one has a good solution. We badly need a debate on how to alter the terms of hostage diplomacy, by reducing the rewards for those who use such coercive techniques -- and increasing them for those who don't. The aim should be to deny those who use kidnapping and violence the attention they crave. The ideal would be some kind of voluntary prohibition -- to legislate it would produce the opposite effect -- to minimize attention to motives and goals of kidnappers and terrorists, whether groups like Al Qaeda or states like North Korea.

Another measure might, in time, start to diminish the force of those who use such vile and objectionable methods to draw attention to their needs: start to reward those who don't use violence, like the Polisario Front of the Western Sahara. Their country was invaded by Morocco in 1975. Since a ceasefire in 1991, this group has refused to take hostages, kill civilians or use violence of any kind. Instead, they continue to use peaceful and diplomatic means to pursue self-determination for the people of this occupied land. But, in the absence of headline-grabbing kidnapping or violence, they continue to be ignored in policy circles, left in the desert to ponder whether a return to arms would better serve their purposes.

A new doctrine offers itself, with which the US can send a strong and positive message to the world: those who foreswear violence will receive greater political rewards than those who do not.

Carne Ross is a former British diplomat and director of Independent Diplomat, a non-profit diplomatic advisory group, which also advises the Polisario Front.