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Hostage Diplomacy: Is Travel to Some Countries Simply Not Worth the Risk?

26 Nov 2021
By John Sanderson and Susan Morgan
800 butterflies, each with a messsage of support, were posted outside St. Paul's in Melbourne for a vigil for Kylie Moore-Gilbert. Photo supplied by John Sanderson.

This week marks one year since Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert was safely returned home after spending over 800 days imprisoned in Iran. As Australia opens for overseas travel, it’s a good time to ask: is travel to some countries simply not worth the personal risk? 

Moore-Gilbert was a victim of Iran’s ongoing use of “hostage diplomacy” – state-sanctioned arbitrary detention of foreign citizens on vague, unsubstantiated charges such as “espionage” or “threatening national security,” in order to apply pressure to their country of citizenship. It’s an abhorrent tactic, but it usually works. To get Kylie out of Iran, the Australian Government had to orchestrate a complicated multi-country deal exchanging her for three Iranians convicted of terrorism offences in Thailand.

Whilst many countries engage in this strategy, it is most often Westerners, including Australians, who are the victims. On the one hand, to certain regimes, Australians represent the “threat” of the spread of Western principles, including adherence to human rights and democratic values. On the other hand, to uphold these very same principles, the Australian Government is then obligated to try to protect its citizens, and extend every effort to negotiate their release when arbitrarily detained by these states. The fact that diplomatic hostages are innocent is part of the play – detaining an innocent person, mistreating them, stripping them of their human rights and individual dignity maximises the distress and outrage in their home country, and has the intention of motivating their government to negotiate a deal more quickly.

Foreign governments with a taste for Western hostages include Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Egypt, Cuba, North Korea, and Venezuela, with the all-time worst offenders arguably being Iran and China. Iran has been a master-manipulator on the geopolitical stage and has been using European and American hostages as pawns for over 40 years– achieving leverage on financial payments and prisoner swaps, in what is otherwise a very asymmetrical power relationship with the West. But it wasn’t until 2018, with the arrest and imprisonment of Moore-Gilbert, followed soon after by travellers Jolie King and Mark Firkin, that it became very clear that Australians were now also a commodity item in the Islamic Republic.

China also has a very clear track record of aggressive geopolitical coercion and hostage diplomacy against countries who criticise it, despite its efforts to appear as a benign superpower on the world stage. We’ve seen this recently, with the release of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, in a blatant prisoner swap for Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. The two Michaels spent over 1000 days in Chinese prisons, just so China could get what it wanted. Chinese-Australian news anchor Cheng Lei has now been detained for more than a year due to, “suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets overseas,” but China commentators recognise that her detention is highly symbolic, and in all likelihood, directly related to China’s coercive diplomacy agenda against Australia. In 2019 and 2020, there were over 100 Australians that were detained and/or arrested in China, and whilst not many of the cases would have been directly motivated by geopolitics, it seems likely that the fate of these unfortunate Australians within the opaque Chinese justice system will have equally as much to do with Sino-Australian relations, as with the particulars of their supposed crimes.

For both China and Iran, hostage diplomacy might appear to win them specific short-term gains, but at what longer-term cost? The Iranian regime’s lasting appetite for Western hostages and their appalling treatment has effectively poisoned its reputation with Western governments and citizenry at all levels, and on an inter-generational timescale. It is unlikely this reputational damage will be undone until there is a complete regime change in the country. China’s overt and aggressive use of hostage diplomacy is now causing Western companies to reassess if and how to do business there.

Hostage diplomacy is a short-term manipulative strategy based on hatred and fear, and offers nothing but life-altering suffering and cruelty to the unfortunate victims and their families. It also appears to be on the rise; there are now far more US nationals held hostage overseas by foreign governments than by terrorist and militia groups, and Western nations are recognising a more coordinated response is needed. In February, Canada launched the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations, which has so far been signed by 67 countries, including Australia. And before the end of the year the Australian Government is planning to amend sanctions legislation to incorporate so-called “Magnitsky sanctions,” directly targeting foreign government officials implicated in human rights abuses including hostage-taking with asset freezes and travel bans. This follows similar legislation in the US, Canada, EU, and the UK.

Moore-Gilbert has added her voice to those calling for states to adopt robust measures to tackle hostage diplomacy. “The Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention is a great first step, but it’s not enough,” she said. “Symbolic declarations such as these send an important message, however they need to be followed up with concrete action. Like-minded Western democracies should tackle this phenomenon collaboratively, and coordinate their response for freeing individual hostages. There is also a clear need for punitive measures designed to punish and disincentivise state hostage-taking and arbitrary detention. The use of Magnitsky sanctions against individuals involved in detaining innocent people for diplomatic leverage is one aspect of this. Another would be to strengthen international law – the current UN Convention against hostage-taking for instance does not even cover what happened to me in Iran, which was state-sponsored hostage-taking.”

Naming and shaming nations that engage in hostage diplomacy is also an important control measure. The specific countries engaging in this repulsive practice should be more frequently, vocally and universally condemned. Greater domestic media attention to hostage cases and awareness about offending nations would also help all Aussie travellers choose which countries to spend time and money in, and to know which countries are simply not worth the risk.

John Sanderson is a multidisciplinary consultant and researcher who has worked in government, academia and the private sector.

Susan Morgan is a former-university educator most recently working on projects to support students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Both were leaders in the campaign for the release of Kylie Moore-Gilbert.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.