Aid workers have experienced a rise in kidnappings over the past 10 years, from seven in 2003 to a high point of 95 in 2011, according to Humanitarian Outcomes, which keeps a database of such incidents.
Abby Stoddard, who works on the Aid Worker Security Database, told IRIN, “Those numbers clearly show kidnapping to be a major and growing threat. In 2011 the numbers of kidnapping incidents outnumbered shootings - roadside and otherwise - as the main form of attack used against aid workers.”
How to respond
Several major aid agencies have begun training staff on how to cope with kidnappings, and agencies have had to formulate policies on how to respond if they are asked for ransom.
A Save the Children spokesperson told IRIN, “Anyone who goes near a difficult or dangerous zone has to do a week’s intensive course. Aid workers are kidnapped, and we are under no illusions that we are going to be untouched.”
Save the Children had two people kidnapped in central Somalia in 2010. “We relied on negotiating through local clan elders. We achieved their safe release, and we are incredibly grateful to all the people who helped,” said the spokesperson, adding, “Save the Children does not pay ransom. That is absolute. It’s our belief that paying ransom would make us more of a target.”
Oxfam agrees. “We never pay ransom,” said Heather Hughes, Oxfam UK’s security advisor. “Although, to be honest, we at Oxfam have never really been tested. A number of our people have been kidnapped, but we have always been able to rely on our contacts in the country to get them released.”
But hostage negotiations are complicated, Stoddard points out. “The vast majority of these kidnappings ended in negotiated release of the victim, but it is impossible to know in how many cases there was a ransom payment made, as agencies do not admit publicly to paying ransoms - or contracting third-party negotiators who cut deals with kidnappers - for obvious reasons,” she said.
Oxfam’s Hughes recognizes things are not always black and white. “There are many ways in which money can change hands,” she told IRIN. “It’s not always the agency which pays. Sometimes the victim’s government pays, and governments differ in their attitudes. For the big agencies, their international staff can be very international indeed. We are British, but our most recent member of staff to be kidnapped was actually Swiss.”
Ransom payments to designated terrorist groups are prohibited under international law. But countries such as France, Germany and Spain are alleged to have paid tens of millions of dollars over the past decade to secure the release of nationals taken hostage by groups linked to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), circumventing the prohibitions by making the payments through intermediaries. This put such countries at odds with the UK and the US, which refuse to pay ransoms, even indirectly.
“The payments of ransoms of this kind prove themselves to be beyond irresponsible,” said Peter Pham, director of US-based research group Ansari Africa Center. “You can’t even pretend you don’t know where that money is going to: to purchase men and arms to use in violent conflict.”
But while the UK government has taken a strong public stance against the payment of ransom, a recent meeting on the issue at the House of Commons revealed a more nuanced policy. The policy - “we do not pay ransom or make any substantive concessions to kidnappers” - allows, through the use of the word “substantive”, a small amount of wriggle room. Officials also say they are willing to negotiate and will talk to anyone who might be able to help.
People who may one day have to negotiate the release of a captive fear that hardline policies against ransom could criminalize choosing to pay. But this is not necessarily the case; even though the UK government does not pay ransom, it has not attempted to prevent its citizens from doing so when the kidnappers are criminal groups rather than terrorists.
Shipping companies commonly pay ransom to retrieve their vessels from Somali pirates. The going rate for a large merchant ship is believed to be around US$5 million. For them, and for oil companies working in the Niger Delta, ransom is one of the recognized costs of doing business. Some Nigerian employees have been kidnapped and released several times.
These companies are inclined to pay up quickly, rather than engage in long, delicate negotiations to reduce the ransom amount. But what these companies pay ends up setting the price kidnappers expect, regardless of what organization their victims work for.
There are security companies that, for a fee, will advise on and assist with ransom negotiations. While their job is to reduce kidnappers’ demands as much as possible, these professional negotiators oppose legislation criminalizing the payment of ransom. They point out that various attempts over the years to outlaw ransom payments have failed to achieve their aim, largely because the families of victims - even when threatened with prosecution - will always find a way to pay.