Hostage-taking has a long and fearful history, and those who have been held tend to stay in the mind. Who can forget the names of Terry Waite and John McCarthy, held for years in Lebanon by Islamic Jihad?
Who can forget Entebbe, when 103 hostages from a hijacked French plane were rescued by Israeli commandos, or the horror of the Munich Olympics in 1972, when nine Israeli athletes were taken by Palestinian terrorists? All nine were murdered.
At least 200 people, including up to ten Britons, were kidnapped and taken to Gaza, where they are being used as pawns in Hamas’s diplomatic engagements with the West.
These victims are at the forefront of public attention, and rightly so.
The British Government has failed to adjust to the fact that hostage-taking is rising exponentially, as more than 50 Britons are held around the world, writes BILL BROWDER
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was gratuitously imprisoned by the Iranian state for six long years, was incarcerated until an outstanding British Government debt was paid to Tehran
Human rights activist Paul Rusesabagina, the inspiration behind the film Hotel Rwanda, was taken hostage by the Rwandan dictator Paul Kagami
But we should heed the fact that hostage-taking is not just increasing around the world – it is rising exponentially. It is a tool for authoritarian states and criminal gangs alike. And a highly effective one.
Yet I believe that the British Government has failed to adjust to this trend. Britons are rotting in desperate conditions. More than 50 are held around the world. For some, it is a death sentence.
The story of British national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was gratuitously imprisoned by the Iranian state for six long years, is very much to the point. She was a hostage – incarcerated until, whether you call it a ransom or not, an outstanding British Government debt to Tehran was paid.
Human rights activist Paul Rusesabagina, the inspiration behind the film Hotel Rwanda, was taken hostage by the Rwandan dictator Paul Kagami.
There are countless similarly harrowing stories around the world, including one close to me.
On April 17 this year, my friend and colleague Vladimir Kara-Murza was sentenced in Russia to 25 years in jail in one of the harshest prison regimes in the world. His ‘crime’? Calling the war in Ukraine what it is – a war. And calling Vladimir Putin what he is – a torturer and war criminal.
Simply speaking out against Putin saw him charged with high treason and his basic freedoms removed.
Today, he is a hostage in the Kremlin’s ceaseless war on the truth.
For Hamas, its hostage-taking tool-kit is a simple and violent one.
Whenever a hostage is taken, it demands a radical response. Quiet conversations by consulate staff simply don’t cut it.
The UK Government’s typical approach is to say that what is considered to be ‘state hostage- taking’ is a ‘consular’ matter. This is not just insulting. It is a reckless response, for it minimises the severity of the situation and recasts it as matter of mere bureaucracy.
While consular services certainly do provide important support for political prisoners, it cannot be right to place the responsibility of state hostage cases on a second-string diplomatic outpost.
Opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza was sentenced in Russia to 25 years in jail after he called the conflict in Ukraine a war and labelled Putin a torturer and war criminal
The UK Government’s typical approach is to say that what is considered to be ‘state hostage- taking’ is a ‘consular’ matter. This is not just insulting, it is a reckless response
Through my many years of experience personally dealing with the Foreign Office, I’ve found that its objective, for the most part, is to maintain smooth and functioning diplomatic relations with governments, no matter how authoritarian and murderous they are.
All too often the Foreign Office has conflicts of interest when attempting to free state hostages.
In short, it is compromised.
We cannot let bureaucracy or partisan conflicts cost my friend Vladimir and all those hostages in Gaza their freedom and their lives. And we should never be under any illusion about the spread of state kidnapping.
We may be thousands of miles away from Gaza City or Moscow, but we are very much affected and will be in the future.
The scale of world travel by British citizens, combined with rising anti-western sentiment, means many more of us will, tragically, be taken hostage by terror organisations such as Hamas, or by rogue states such as Russia in the coming months and years.
Governments cannot sit by while their citizens are illegally arrested, kidnapped and tortured – or even killed.
Hostage-taking will forever be a weapon in our enemies’ arsenal.
The fact is that governments can address the problem. For example, the US had a toothless approach until it passed a piece of legislation called the Levinson Act in 2020.
Named after former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who was taken hostage in Iran in 2007, the Act created a dedicated role within the US government that marshals all the administration’s resources to free any American taken hostage by countries such as Iran.
The role is called Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs. Up until April this year, the current envoy, Roger Carstens, has successfully freed 26 hostages. It is worth noting that this is half the UK’s number of hostages being held abroad.
Since April, Carstens has successfully negotiated the release of many more, including Americans being freed from Iran.
It is time for the UK to follow in the United States’ footsteps.
It’s unfathomable to me that the British Government, when presented with a recommendation from the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee to introduce a similar position to the Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs, rejected the idea, saying it was unnecessary.
If taking basic effective action to free UK citizens who have been unjustly captured abroad is considered unnecessary, then what is considered necessary? The fact is that we are presented with the perfect time and global context to adopt an office of hostage affairs.
British hostage John McCarthy pictured arriving in the UK after being freed from Beirut by ‘Islamic Jihad’
Today, victims include Britons in Gaza and my friend Vladimir Kara-Murza. Tomorrow, it could be anyone.
I was heartened by Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy’s announcement that if Labour forms the next government, it would do exactly this.
Yet this shouldn’t be a partisan issue. I don’t think hostages and their families should be rooting for Labour versus Conservatives. Hostages should not have to wait for a General Election to see change. This is urgent and has been put off for far too long.
British hostages in Gaza languish in terrible conditions, being tortured and killed as part of Hamas’s evil strategy as it does everything it possibly can to provoke the Israelis into further action.
All this means the issue cannot be resolved through the sort of quiet diplomacy pursued by Foreign Office mandarins. Ministers must change their approach or this barbaric tactic will continue to be used and abused by terrorists and dictatorships alike.
We have the chance to act. This is a case of humanity, not politics.
- Bill Browder is a US-born author and anti-corruption campaigner