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24 November, 2021updated 25 Nov 2021 14:41

Why businesses cannot be blind to the rise in state hostage-taking

State hostage-taking is on the rise, with Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe's plight in Iran being just one example, and businesses and international travellers cannot be complacent about the threat this places them under.

By Courtney Fingar, Ben van der Merwe and Sebastian Shehadi

It is day 16 of his hunger strike when Richard Ratcliffe sits down with Investment Monitor, in foldable chairs near the tent where he spent a frigid night camped out in front of the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). Halloween pumpkins with ‘Free Nazanin’ carved into them, an array of candles and a large photograph of his wife garnish the concrete railings behind the makeshift camp. 

“I am getting less lucid,” he says, apologetically.

An accountant from north London, Ratcliffe has spent five years trying to free his British-Iranian wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, from detention in Iran. She was grabbed at Tehran airport in April 2016 following a family visit with her toddler daughter and later convicted of spying charges, which she and her family strenuously deny. Having served her full five-year sentence, she was then slapped with new charges earlier in 2021 and sentenced to a further year in prison plus an additional year-long ban on leaving Iran. The family remains separated – with Richard raising their now seven-year-old daughter in London – and no end to the ordeal in sight. 

Now on his second hunger strike – launched to keep his wife’s plight front of mind during the visit of an Iranian delegation to London – Ratcliffe is calm but outraged, and despite the disclaimer about his lucidity, he is explicit in his critiques of the UK government’s approach to the stand-off.

“If you look at our case, and other similar cases, it is clear the government has handled it very badly,” he says. “It is an approach of managed waiting and it has gone on far too long. The UK needs to confront the issue of state hostage-taking, but there is a real reluctance to call a spade a spade.” 

Why hostage status matters

Tulip Siddiq, MP for Hampstead and Kilburn (the Ratcliffe family’s constituency), tells Investment Monitor that she has long called for the government to recognise that Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a hostage but that it has repeatedly failed to do so. “Ministers have refused to take this first and necessary step, let alone challenge it with sanctions or legal action,” she says. “They have a responsibility to make it clear through their actions that hostage-taking will not be tolerated, in order to prevent Iran and any other countries from trying it.”

Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s fate appears to be linked to a decades-old debt of £400m ($535.1m) the UK owes Iran for the sale of tanks before the Iranian revolution in 1979 – an issue Iran has been overt about but which the UK has tried to downplay for some time, although there is a growing acknowledgement of and political pressure to settle the debt. A parliamentary debate over the issue on 16 November was standing room only. 

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“This is not just about Nazanin, it is about all the British citizens who are unlawfully detained in Iran [while visiting the country for work or leisure],” says Siddiq. “The UK government has a responsibility to them to challenge Iran’s hostage-taking and take strong action to bring this appalling practice to an end.”

Zaghari-Ratcliffe is one of several British-Iranian dual nationals currently being held in Iran. Their dual nationality has muddied the waters of these individual tragedies – something Richard Ratcliffe calls a “fig leaf” to distract from the obligations of the UK and Iran in relation to treatment of detainees. 

Their dual status perhaps also creates a false sense of safety for foreign nationals visiting Iran, and other such ‘risky’ destinations. So does a belief that it is mainly political activists who are at risk of being arbitrarily detained. 

“There is an assumption [by business executives] that ‘if I keep out of trouble I will be alright. I am here to do business, not attend a protest or rally. I am a businessman, not an activist’,” says Ratcliffe. “This activism bias makes it feel less anarchic, but in fact most state hostages are businessmen.”

His message to global business travellers is stark: “This bell tolls for you. It is not just something happening to other people.” 

State hostage-taking may be statistically rare compared with other risks faced by international travellers but is nonetheless a real and present danger in several countries around the world, and is itself a booming business. 

“I believe we are on the cusp of state hostage-taking really exploding as an issue, because it has been so successful as a tactic,” says Ratcliffe. “Hostage-taking as a tool of diplomacy has become more endemic. It is a business model, and it is a business model that is growing, because it has been allowed to fester without anyone challenging it.”

He likens the issue to state-sponsored cyberhacking: once considered a remote and minor risk, it is now front and centre for companies everywhere, with huge sums spent in IT budgets to protect against it.

“There is a real erosion of norms happening. You can feel it in lots of ways,” says Ratcliffe. “Hostage-taking was a common practice in the Middle Ages. It is not like this is something that has never been done, it was part of statecraft, but it does feel like we are slipping back towards that, but in a world that is much more interconnected and much more dangerous.”

A veneer of legality

Whether in Iran or elsewhere, state-sponsored hostage-taking is often conducted with a veneer of legality. Hostages are typically charged with criminal offences, arrested, tried and convicted. 

“These people are all charged with a criminal offence, they are all convicted, they have an appeal process,” says Carla Ferstman, a professor of law at the University of Essex and former director of human rights organisation Redress. “The justice system is being used, in a way. Even though there is no sense of any real crime being done.”

This puts the victim’s home state in a difficult position, diplomatically – states are generally reluctant to be seen interfering with another country’s legal system.

During the 19th century, British citizens in China or US citizens in much of Latin America were governed under the laws of their home state. This makes open diplomatic interference with a criminal process, no matter how unfounded, a sensitive geopolitical issue.

“If I go to Spain and get drunk and disorderly, I’ll have to face the consequences,” says Rachel Briggs, founding executive director of non-profit support organisation Hostage US and an associate fellow at think tank Chatham House. “That is my fault and I would have to face the Spanish legal system – but that is not what is happening here. What is happening here is that people are being picked up for no reason whatsoever, given absurd, ridiculous charges, put through a non-existent legal system where they don’t see their lawyers, they can’t see the evidence. In some cases they never even see the inside of a courtroom.”

The use of criminal proceedings also makes cooperation between victims’ families more difficult. Families of detainees can be hesitant to work with those facing more serious charges, for fear that the association could harm their own case. The three-party aspect of state hostage-taking adds another complexity: it is not just about a prisoner disputing their charges with the prosecuting party, it is ultimately a dispute between two countries with the hostage caught in the middle. 

The difficulty in resolving the cases heightens the risk level beyond sheer numbers. “Most people that go to [Iran, China, etc] will be fine,” says Ratcliffe. “They aren’t going to put thousands of foreign visitors in prison, they haven’t got the capacity, but they will take a few – and if it is you then heaven help you, because the governments don’t do much.”

Despite these issues, international recognition of state-sponsored hostage-taking has been growing. Various UN bodies have acknowledged its existence, notably in Iran.

A 2018 open letter by the families of foreign nationals detained in Iran called on world leaders to “call this what it is: hostage-taking”. The letter continued: “Over several agonising years, our loved ones’ cases have each been treated individually, but while they are all unique and complicated cases, this is not an individual problem, it is a pattern; a pattern we call on world leaders to help end.”

A closer look at Iran’s tactics

Over the past two decades, various segments of Iran’s complex power structure have taken hostages from countries with whom they have unresolved issues. However, the tactic has become increasingly common due to the fast-growing power of ‘hardliners’, especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, since 2009.

At least 62 foreign nationals were detained in Iran between 2010 and 2020, according to figures compiled from English-language press reports by Ferstman and and fellow academic Marina Sharpe, with 15 being taken into custody in 2016 alone.

This includes 29 American citizens, 16 UK citizens and 17 from Australia, Canada or France. As of June 2021, most had been released – but only after an average detention of 19 months. Others continue to languish in prison.

“[Hostage-taking] has become a major security risk for international companies,” says Bijan Khajehpour of strategy consulting company Eurasian Nexus Partner, which is based in Vienna. “The trend has been that they would arrest dual nationals first, because it is easier to build a judicial case against them, but they can also go after foreign nationals if they deem that it would help them achieve their goals.”

Iran tends to go after dual citizens for several reasons. For one, it is technically illegal to have dual citizenship in Iran, and while this rule is often flouted, it is very easy to make a legitimate case against dual citizens when needed, alongside trumped-up charges. Moreover, harassing dual nationals intimidates other dual citizens and keeps them outside Iran, which suits Iranian hardliners seeking to reduce Western influence in the country. 

This tactic forms part of a wider strategy in Iran’s ‘hostage value chain’. “They take hostages that will attract the most attention, dual nations or not. It is a very shrewd, callous policy,” says Geoffrey Dive, a board member of Hostage Aid Worldwide. “So in Nazanin’s case they had a mother and a baby. That is an extremely powerful story in the Western media. It is free publicity. You have to see it in those commercial terms: an extremely effective way of getting everybody in the West to sit up and take Iran seriously.” 

Another trend is that all Western hostages in Iran have come from educated or well-connected circles, meaning they are academics, journalists or business people, adds Dive. Not only do these demographics make a bigger media splash, but false allegations against them stick more easily in court. 

“In some cases it is a blatant attempt to take Westerners to hold as leverage,” says Briggs. “In other cases it is an attempt to both do that but also remind the population at home that if they step out of line this is what happens.”

Unfortunately, there is no golden formula to freeing hostages from the Iranian state, not least since it is such a disparate state. “Iran has a very complex power structure and one needs to understand which segment of the power structure is behind a hostage-taking and what they wish to achieve,” says Khajehpour. "In the end, the balance of power between different power centres will play a role in identifying a workable approach."

Some fear that, even if a solution is found for the current group of hostages, meeting Iran’s demands will only incentivise it to undertake further hostage-taking. Dive strongly disagrees, in the case of Zaghari-Ratcliffe. “There is genuine legal debt owed to the Iranians," he says. "They have taken the necessary legal steps, but the UK government keeps delaying.”

In any case, it is clear that international approaches, be it the UK’s or not, have failed to deter Iran over the past decade. Economic sanctions have had mixed success, at best. On the one hand, Iran’s 'Look East' (and ‘Look Russia’) policies, especially with the country's new regime, means that it is not particularly concerned about foreign investment from the West.

“[One the other hand], economic sanctions bite, since the West pretty much owns the banking system, so they can’t sell things abroad as easily," says Dive. "This is why we need to sanction individuals, meaning culprits won't be able to travel to Europe, etc, or send their children to university.” In other words, those individuals cannot join the diaspora with any money they have amassed, thereby blocking their escape route from Iran. 

While Iran is a world leader in state-led hostage-taking, China, Russia and other big players use it too. Iran’s success may be encouraging others to wield this form of power. “How long will it take Afghanistan under the Taliban to pick it up?” wonders Dive. 

Accurate figures are hard to come by

Accurate figures on the extent of state-sponsored hostage-taking can be difficult to come by, due to a reluctance by both states and victims’ families to speak out.

“At the moment, governments don’t even admit how many of their citizens are being held as state hostages,” says Briggs. 

“The UK government refuses to release the statistics because it says it would risk revealing the identity of the captives, which is a complete non-argument. It would be a really big step forward to acknowledge how big the problem is and how much it has changed over time so that we can all get a sense of the seriousness and the growing nature of the problems.”

Ferstman adds: “From the government’s perspective, they don’t necessarily want to admit that they have nationals who fall within this category, because it is a sign that another state has got leverage over them.

“They also don’t want to be in a position where they are asked what they are doing. The governments argue they have a much greater ability to find solutions if their every move is not being scrutinised."

Indeed, this is why an FCDO spokesperson told Investment Monitor: “We will not provide a running commentary on our actions. The UK does not accept British nationals being used as diplomatic leverage.”

The Australian hostage policy of “quiet diplomacy”, similar to that of the UK and others, may indeed have benefits. For one, there is a national security argument, since the deal may involve sensitive bargaining chips or large sums that might only incentivise further hostage-taking. Moreover, the media’s coverage of a situation can sometimes derail negotiations. 

However, Kylie Moore-Gilbert, an Australian-British academic held hostage by Iran for two years, thinks that “quiet diplomacy” is flawed. In an early 2021 interview with Sky News, she said: “Had my ordeal been made public, there is no way I would have got [sentenced to] ten years.” Only after her case was made public around the world, with much greater attention being paid to her health and condition, did things improve, added Moore-Gilbert. 

“The families of those detained for very long periods of time have the right to know what is happening, [something] that outweighs any perceived flexibility in terms of how it would assist the state’s [negotiations],” says Ferstman.

“These countries also often have policies that prevent them from paying off hostage-takers. So, if they are going to do it they don’t want it to be public because that may lead to more cases – even though there may sometimes be very good reasons to make those deals.”

For all these reasons, official and definitive data on hostages is hard to come by, but industry professionals say they are seeing a clear trend nonetheless. “During my ten years doing this work I saw these kinds of cases growing and growing over time,” says Briggs. “Our caseload didn’t represent 100% of cases, but it got up to where state-sponsored hostage takings were around half the cases we were dealing with.

Briggs says that it is not just a growth in the absolute number of cases, but that more and more countries are seeing that hostage-taking is a way to poke the bear without causing a large retaliatory response (which other actions might do).

“We’ve got foreigners being held in Russia. There’s the American journalist [Danny Fenster] who was released from Myanmar just recently. There’s Americans being held in Venezuela. Certainly, during my time handling these cases, we had cases in the Republic of the Congo and in North Korea,” she adds.

International cooperation is essential

“Obviously nobody likes their citizens being held in this way, but they are a little embarrassed to talk about it,” says Briggs. 

“So, what happens is that then countries scurry around behind the scenes, trying bilaterally to get their citizens home, but when each country tries to pick off their own little bit in a piecemeal way, you have countries such as Iran, Russia and China holding all the cards and us really not getting the benefit of a united front.

“For instance, it shouldn’t just be the UK condemning Iran for holding British citizens, it should be the UK, the US, the EU, and so on, all condemning this whole practice. I want to hear [US Secretary of State] Antony Blinken speaking out against Nazanin’s plight. I want to hear [UK Foreign Secretary] Liz Truss talk about the Americans who are held in Iran.

“We do have things such as Magnitsky sanctions, which can go after individuals rather than states, and we have ways of freezing assets. In negotiations it is all about how do you increase pressure on the other side. The way that we do that is by acting together.”

In February, Canada launched its Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations, a major landmark in international cooperation on the issue. 

“It is not binding, but it clarifies the practice,” says Ferstman. “I think it will help, from the perspective of the families, because it brings more transparency, but getting to something that is more binding is difficult and could take years to develop. The states want to maintain those bilateral relationships.

“You would think that all these governments whose dual nationals are detained elsewhere would want something to help to advocate to get their nationals back home, but if it ties their hands behind their back and forces them to act in a particular way, it may not actually be in their real interests."

Business is largely silent

Companies face similar dilemmas about how vocal to be on the issue.Should companies be talking out on this?” asks Briggs. “I think that is a really difficult ask.

“In an ideal world we would have corporations and governments standing up against this, but I quite understand the challenge for any individual company to be the first one who speaks.

“In Iran there is quite limited international business exchange, but asking companies to do that in a market as big as China? It is a really tall order, and I am not entirely sure that it is realistic. So, I think the emphasis has to be on nation states to take the lead on this.”

Ratcliffe, however, warns against a policy of keeping quiet and insists international companies do their globetrotting employees a disservice by downplaying the risk or avoiding the issue. 

“There is a logic to keeping quiet in a terrorist kidnapping, which is often criminally motivated or sometimes symbolic, making someone suffer," he says. "It is more [transactional] and is straightforward cash they want, whereas state hostage taking is different in that it can be more nuanced. In that case speaking out keeps your employees safe in a way that keeping quiet does not. If it is a state hostage-taking it is not really the company’s fault, it is about the government, and you have to put pressure on the government to act.” 

Who is at risk?

The arbitrariness of the detentions makes preventative measures difficult to design or implement, making international action all the more important.

“Journalists are certainly at particular risk, but it is more widespread than that,” says Briggs. “In the case of Iran it is also folks like Nazanin who have simply gone home to visit their parents, or academics such as Moore-Gilbert. As far as I can see it is little more than whether you have got the wrong passport.”

This is why dual nationals are not necessarily more at risk in Iran (or elsewhere). “It really depends on which nationality you are, what you are doing, and where,” says Lucia Caamano, lead analyst of kidnapping and ransom at security and risk consultancy AKE International.

The UK government has come under particular fire for its unsuccessful approach to dealing with hostage cases. 

“While the US and Australia have succeeded in freeing their citizens from imprisonment in Iran, the UK government has proved incapable of doing so,” MP Siddiq told Investment Monitor. “While Nazanin has seen many of her fellow inmates return home to their respective countries, ministers here in the UK have completely failed to provide consular support for British citizens in Iran and pay the debt we know is linked to the ongoing detention of Nazanin and others in a similar situation to her.”

The UK government refutes these criticisms. “The FCDO is doing all it can to help all unfairly detained British nationals in Iran get home to their families. We will continue to press Iran on this issue at every opportunity,” an FCDO spokesperson told Investment Monitor. “Iran’s decision to proceed with these baseless charges against Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is an appalling continuation of the cruel ordeal she is going through. Iran should urgently release all those British nationals unfairly detained in Iran, including Nazanin, Anoosheh Ashoori and Morad Tahbaz.”

Strong statements are one thing, actions are another. Why is it that the US is widely considered more proactive and productive in resolving state-led hostage-taking than the UK? For one, the US is more willing to call the behaviour out as hostage-taking, has an infrastructure and support system for dealing with the cases and is more willing to cut deals and do whatever is needed to free its citizens from foreign prisons. Due to its power on the world stage, the US also has more clout, more sticks and more carrots to offer the countries that are detaining Americans. However, there is also a crucial conceptual difference in what citizenship means

“There is a cultural difference in that the US passport means you bring people home," says Ratcliffe. "That is not necessarily true of other countries. British citizenship, unfortunately, ends at the borders. The way we do consular law, the state has rights, the citizens don’t.”

The UK FCDO “is very clear that it has no obligations” towards British citizens who may find themselves facing trouble abroad, he says. “It is more like a Victorian model where we are subjects of the crown. The state has interests, the state may choose to exercise its interests through the citizen, but we are not citizens in the way Americans are.”

There is also the state of the UK's domestic politics to consider. Brexit, Covid-19 and ‘sleaze’ scandals may have distracted the UK government from these hostage-taking issues. “There is also a web of international sensitivities between the UK and its other security partners negotiating a new Iran deal,” says Dive. “But ultimately, the UK is desperate not to offend the Americans right now, due to potential loss of markets and favour. So much for 'global Britain' on this one. We are being so reactive, not proactive.” 

As for Ratcliffe, he eventually ended his hunger strike after 21 days, to honour a promise to his wife that he would return to looking after their daughter and not risk his life – but he did so with a dejected resignation that a major breakthrough in his family’s case was still not forthcoming. 

His message to the UK government – and the business community – remains clear. “We aren’t just subjects, we aren’t expendable and you do have an obligation to make the world safe for your citizens, which means addressing this issue [of hostage taking]," he says. "And that without a doubt is something business should also take seriously." 

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