hostage diplomacy

Written by Khawaja Obaid Ur Rehman 12:05 pm Articles, Current Affairs, International Relations, Published Content

The Prisoner’s Dilemma of Hostage Diplomacy: How States Exploit Foreigners

Khawaja Obaid ur Rehman explains the concept of ‘hostage diplomacy’ – linking it to the recent arrest of US basketball player Brittney Griner who got arrested in Russia. He also applies the concept of ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ to show just how tricky the practice of imprisoning foreign nationals to achieve specific national interests can be.
About the Author(s)
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Khawaja Obaid Ur Rehman is a student of International Relations at the National University of Modern Languages Islamabad. He is currently the editor at Youth Diplomacy Forum.

Russia and the US – Griner & Bout

On February 17, 2022, renowned American woman basketball player Brittney Griner was arrested in Moscow airport on charges of drug smuggling. She was later found guilty of drug possession by the Russian court which sentenced her to a nine-year prison. American policymakers are looking at this arrest from another perspective, that is, hostage diplomacy.

Brittney Griner’s arrest is being linked with this age-old tactic. Russia is using this arrest as a means to achieve the end of getting the infamous arms supplier Viktor Bout (also called the merchant of death) out of American prison. Media reports claim that America has shown its intent to comply with the Russian demand.

Thus, it seems that Russia’s hostage diplomacy is paying the dividend, and America happens to be helpless in dealing with the crisis at hand. Hostage diplomacy can be done by various entities in protean shapes. Some states may carry it out by incarcerating a citizen of another state so that demands can be fulfilled that wouldn’t have otherwise.

Used by Non-State Actors

Non-state actors also use this tactic to achieve various purposes. They either kidnap certain pre-decided individuals or take aeroplanes hostage in the air when nothing can be done to avert the crisis by rescuing the passengers. This predicament puts the states into a prisoner’s dilemma. 

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In one of his addresses in 1985, former American president Ronald Reagan asserted that no concessions would ever be made to terrorists upon any such hostage taking because succumbing to their demands will cascade into future kidnappings and subsequent paying of more ransoms for getting their citizens out of captivity.

In the 1970s and 80s, many terrorist organizations received political and economic benefits through this practice. America, to thwart any future kidnapping, did adopt the policy of no concession but was never actually able to comply with it. American president Joe Biden recently called hostage diplomacy a significant and severe threat to the US’s national, political, and economic security.

National Interests

The American government, in this regard, has issued a comprehensive policy to prevent the kidnapping of its citizens. It instructed its people to think twice before visiting countries like Russia, China, Iran, Burma, Syria, etc., because, in case of any political arrest, the justice system of these countries could not be trusted. It also promised stringent and coercive sanctions on states who would directly or indirectly participate in any politically motivated activity. 

Through hostage diplomacy, authoritarian states abetted by their judicial system incarcerate foreign nationals for achieving specific interests. America and its allies have long been victims of this implicit yet effective weapon. In 2016, Iranian authorities arrested British national journalist Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffeon on spying charges. She was later released after six years only when England paid a debt of 400 million dollars to Iran. 

Similarly, in 2018, the CFO of Huawei, Meng Wanzhou, was arrested in Canada on charges of fraudulent bank transactions and the violation of sanctions imposed on Iran. A few days after the arrest, two Canadian brothers were detained by the Chinese authorities. Till January 2021, the prospects of their release were negligible, but they were released in September 2021 in exchange for the release of Meng Wanzhou. 

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The politically motivated arrests of Siamak Namazi in Iran in 2015 and Paul Whelan in Russia in 2018 are some other examples of this trend. Previous cases till today clearly and blatantly suggest that these captives will also be released only when the governments of Russia and Iran will get something in return. Namazi and Whelan are alive to provide an upper hand or, to say, leverage to Iran and Russia in the negotiations for a final deal. 

Demanding a Ransom

If the US and its allies continue to pay ransom for releasing their people, then the probability of future attacks will only increase. If rival states or terrorist organizations come to believe that hostage diplomacy is beneficial for achieving a particular objective that could not have been achieved otherwise, then the attacks would only continue with even harsh demands.

Media reports claim that when US authorities agreed to release Viktor Bout in exchange for Brittney Griner, Russia, instead of releasing her, came up with more demands. In 2013, G8 countries, through an agreement, agreed not to yield to any demands of terrorist organizations in exchange for the lives of their people.

The US and UK pertaining to this treaty have been intransigent hitherto in the face of any such tactic. Still, media reports have claimed that Spain, France, and Italy have not stopped to pay for getting their people free. This is a classic example of a prisoner’s dilemma. As long as someone is ready to bail himself out by breaking the trust, the predicament shall only compound. 

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Roadmap for Tackling Hostage Diplomacy

Such a dilemma can be effectively thwarted in two ways

  • Preventing kidnapping by taking pre-emptive measures
  • Inflicting punishment on the perpetrators

In the 1960s and 70s, a plane was taken hostage every 5 days for one or another purpose. To tackle the crisis, airlines started using x-ray checking methods and so cases decreased exponentially. Even today, airlines and states must take all precautionary measures to prevent any crisis. The government of America, in this regard, has issued a traveling guideline for its people.

The second method of severe punishment has been very effective throughout these decades. Colombia was once called the world’s kidnapping hotspot, but after the establishment of the anti-kidnapping unit, the cases have seen a massive 92% drop from 2000. America has formed its own SEAL team 6 and US Delta Force.

However, the problem of hostage diplomacy cannot be dealt with through individual efforts of any state. It is a global problem and must be uprooted through a strategy devised by all nations. The predicament shall only end when all the states agree to solve their problems through negotiations rather than taking political prisoners and exchanging them for the sake of sordid political expediency.


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