The grotesque assassination of the American journalist James Foley has publicly raised the complex question of whether or not governments, companies or individuals should pay a ransom to free hostages. There are supportable arguments on both sides of the issue and, not surprisingly, there are differences on to how to deal with the problem. There has been no coherent response in the West to demands for ransom.
All governments deny that they pay. A declaration by a group of countries at a 2013 G8 meeting clearly stated that they would not reward hostage taking: “We are committed to protecting the lives of our nationals and reducing terrorist groups’ access to the funding that allows them to survive and thrive in accordance with relevant international conventions. We unequivocally reject the payment of ransoms to terrorists in line with the UN Security Council Resolution 1904 (2009) which requires that Member States prevent the payment of ransoms, directly or indirectly, to terrorists designated under the UN Al Qaeda sanctions regime through the freezing of funds and other assets.”
Nonetheless, reaping rewards from kidnapping has become a big business if not a growth industry. A recent survey by the New York Times showed that since 2008, $125 million has been paid in ransom, $66 million last year alone. For organizations such as Al Qaida, exchanging hostages for money has become an important source of income. Human beings, in other words, are a commodity to be negotiated. In the case of James Foley, for instance, reports are that the Islamic States of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) demanded a multimillion dollar ransom for his release of up to $100 million. Estimates are that in 2010, £600,000 was paid to Somali pirates to free Paul and Rachel Chandler.
According to reliable sources, the United States has maintained a position that adamantly refuses to pay. Moreover, it will fine companies or individuals under its jurisdiction who do pay. The reasons given for this position are that paying kidnappers will only encourage similar actions and that the money received will increase the capabilities of terrorist organizations. In reality, this means that in spite of a failed rescue attempt, the US government allowed Foley and the other captive then in the hands of ISIS, Steven Sotloff, to be outside financial negotiation. The US feels that payments will have long term negative consequences; the short-term tragedies just have to be accepted.
The United States is unique in this position. Great Britain refuses to pay as a country but ignores when companies or individuals exchange hostages for money. European countries such as Spain, Italy and France deny paying but have been known to do so. 50 foreigners were held in the past five years; almost all have been released after payment. While Israel does not pay for hostages, it did release over 1000 Palestinian prisoners in 2011 in exchange for the freeing of one Israeli captured soldier, Gilad Shalit.
Watching the video of James Foley’s last moments is heart-wrenching. The message from the ISIS representative to the American people and president was clear: “Now that you’ve intervened, you are the enemy and we will go after you.” Because the US will continue to intervene in Iraq by aerial bombing at a minimum, one can expect that every American in Iraq will be at risk, with no guarantee of a negotiated release. Steven Sotloff tragically proved to be the next victim. If we follow the U.S.’ reasoning, we must be prepared to watch other videos like the ones with Foley and Sotloff. And we can only dread that there may be similar incidents in the United States or around the world. ISIS has declared the US its enemy – “we will go after you” – with absolutely no respect for international humanitarian law.
Would paying a ransom have changed the situation for James Foley and Steven Sotloff? Will paying ransoms change situations for people like them? The United States, as is often the case, has a different position from the rest of the world. What its position entails is that we will have to learn to watch horrific footage of barbaric actions screaming “Do something to stop this,” accepting that paying money to free a hostage may cause more damage in the long term. Not an easy lesson at all. We would all like to join in the euphoria when the Swiss hostage Max Göldi was finally released in Libya and returned to Switzerland. Heart-warming is much better than heart-wrenching, but it appears we will have to learn to live with the latter.
Daniel Warner is an American-Swiss political scientist. This article appeared on his blog for la Tribune de Genève at tdg.ch/blogs