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Hostage Aid Worldwide launches to tackle the issue of state hostage diplomacy

5 March 2021 marked the launch of Hostage Aid Worldwide with a global online event which brought together former hostages, family members of hostages, lawmakers and various experts on international law to discuss the issue of hostage diplomacy.

In their own words, Hostage Aid Worldwide:

“assists hostage victims and their families by providing insights on their cases, coordination with governments & UN bodies and a strategy to disrupt the hostage business model. We do this by combining global advocacy with empirical data driven methods”

The organisation’s team includes former detainees and experts on this issue, including former hostages in Iran; Nizzar Zakka, Xiyue Wang and Barry Rosen.

Presiding over the event was actress and Amnesty International UK Ambassador, Nazanin Boniadi. In her opening remarks, Nazanin set the tone by saying:

“Hostage taking is a trending threat to diplomatic norms. I’ve had the privilege of meeting former hostages and their families and I’m proud to call them my friends. In my time advocating on their behalf, one thing has remained disturbingly constant – we simply aren’t doing enough to end hostage diplomacy.”

Adding that: “to make a real impact we need better methods and ways of looking at the problem, deeper collaboration between governments and better collaboration between families and a way to call it out.”

Hostage diplomacy is the practice whereby states arbitrarily detain foreign or dual nationals with the intention of using them as bargaining chips in international negotiations. The practice is favoured by autocratic regimes such as Iran, China and Korea.

A keynote speech by US Congressman Ted Deutch, Chair of the the Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa and Global Counterterrorism stated:

“We must continue to make clear that those who engage in hostage taking or unlawfully detain Americans will be met with a powerful response from the United States Congress. We will not be silenced while American lives are used as political pawns.”

The event was packed with high profile speakers, including former advisors to US Presidents, FBI Special Agents and Presidents of global advocacy groups.

Most importantly, the launch brought together numerous former hostages to speak and impart wisdom on the practice of hostage diplomacy. Australian/British academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert was released in November 2020 from her hostage ordeal of two years in an Iranian prison as part of a prisoner swap. Ms. Moore-Gilbert used her keynote speech at the HostageAid launch to say:

“Governments are increasingly being forced to negotiate over the lives of their innocent citizens in order to meet the demands of state based hostage takers, often paying a heavy price in exchange… We hope that Hostage Aid Worldwide will be a first step in bringing this inhumane practice to an end.”

The launch featured a number of panels, the first of which focused on the pre-existing – mechanisms – and their limitations – to address hostage diplomacy. The panel discussed the UN Convention on Hostage Taking, the Canadian Hostage Accountability Act and Magnitsky powers.

Speaking on the strength of the Canadian Hostage Accountability Act, Former Presidential Envoy on Hostage Affairs James O’Brien said:

“It’s great value is to name the problem. Normally these kinds of arbitrary detentions hide within the thousands of detentions of foreign nationals each year and the associated arbitrary administrative acts….Now it’s front and centre and we can begin to discuss it.”

Similarly, a report by the UK Foreign Affairs Committee had urged the UK government to begin referring to such detainees as hostages. A barrier to resolutions has been that the UN Convention on Hostage Taking does not encompass hostile states arbitrarily detaining foreign nationals within its definition of hostage taking.

Another panel focused on hostage taking in Iran, perhaps the most infamous user of hostage diplomacy in today’s world. Former hostage in Iran and American-Chinese citizen Xiyue Wang noted:

“Any political deal that does not explicitly address Iran’s hostage taking behaviour will not stop Iran’s hostage taking… I believe that the JCPOA is partly responsible for Iran’s hostage taking spree after January 2016. I think the idea of the JCPOA in large part is to encourage Iran to be a part of the international community and a responsible actor in the civilised world. But as we have seen the JCPOA has failed and Iran has begun taking hostages at a higher rate.”

Also participating on the panel was Richard Ratcliffe, husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe the British-Iranian national currently being held hostage in Iran. Nazanin is currently in the final days of her sentence, which is due to end on Sunday 7 March 2020. However Richard ratcliffe has said he is “sceptical” that she will be allowed to return to the UK soon. In an emotional contribution, Richard Ratcliffe said:

“I don’t see that we as a community of those who are concerned about hostage taking have really worked out enough ways to really challenge the benefits of this as a business model and really start to impose some costs as to why this isn’t a sensible practice for the revolutionary guard. That’s not a simple ask but I think Hostage Aid Worldwide is a really good place to start.”

This touched on an important point; that there is generally a lack of consensus about how best to deal with hostage diplomacy. However, by engaging lawmakers, former hostages and families under the same umbrella, Hostage Aid Worldwide provides an exciting opportunity to progress on the eradication of this practice.

Speaking after the event, Director of the International Observatory of Human Rights Valerie Peay said:

“It has been a privilege to work with some of the former hostages who have joined together to form HostageAid and we at IOHR are fully supportive of the work, focus and experience that they will bring to this new venture. No one should be used as a hostage bargaining chip and HostageAid will give the victims and their families the collective strength and technological know how to bring about change. I look forward to future collaboration and supporting such a good initiative.”

Watch the full event here:

Watch IOHR’s documentary on hostage diplomacy here:

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