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Why authoritarian governments take hostages

It’s not just a terrorist tactic any more.

- December 11, 2022

Editors’ note: In this archival post, Good Authority contributor Danielle Gilbert explains the politics and international law involved when governments take hostages. The piece was originally published on Dec. 12, 2022, after the United States government had negotiated a prisoner swap with Russia that freed WNBA star Brittney Griner.  

Brittney Griner is finally home. On Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, the WNBA star landed in the United Arab Emirates, ending her 294 days in Russian captivity. There, on the tarmac in Abu Dhabi, the United States and Russia carried out a high-profile prisoner exchange, trading Griner for a Russian arms dealer imprisoned in the United States. Viktor Bout, nicknamed “the merchant of death,” was arrested in 2008 and sentenced to 25 years in 2012 for supporting terrorism and conspiring to kill Americans.

Griner’s painful, 10-month ordeal highlights the growing trend of state-led hostage-taking. Here are five things we’ve learned from Griner’s detention.

Griner was a hostage

Griner was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced through the Russian criminal justice system. But she was never a normal prisoner, nor was her trial fair. In May, the State Department designated Griner as “wrongfully detained,” indicating that the U.S. government considered her treatment illegitimate. The designation also marked the official government efforts to bring her home.

This is an example of hostage diplomacy: when a government, like Russia’s, uses its criminal justice system to take foreigners hostage. Two elements clue us in to Griner’s “hostage” status.

First, the charges were exaggerated, perhaps even by Russia’s own standards. Griner was convicted of international drug smuggling, though she was found with 0.7 grams of cannabis oil — the weight of a raisin — in her luggage. While Russia has notoriously strict drug laws, Griner’s sentence of 9½ years of hard labor in a penal colony fell outside the norm of recent cases.

Second and crucially, Griner was held for leverage. In this way, she met the definition of a hostage in international law. The 1979 International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages defines hostage taking as “detain[ing] and threaten[ing] to … continue to detain another person” to “compel a third party, namely, a State,” to do something “as an explicit or implicit condition for the release of the hostage.” The Russian government made clear in both official and unofficial channels that Griner would be held until Bout was released; her detention was conditional on concessions.

Thus, although officially a “wrongful detainee,” Griner was held hostage. My own thinking on this subject has evolved, as hostage-taking has shifted from a tactic used by terrorist groups to one used by authoritarian states. While most Americans arrested abroad should not be considered hostages, any held for leverage would meet that definition.

Negotiations are difficult but possible

Griner was arrested one week before Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, and her detention has coincided with a nadir in U.S.-Russia relations. The Biden administration has firmly opposed Putin’s war and has rallied international support for Ukraine. Nevertheless, Washington and Moscow retained the ability to negotiate throughout.

Hostage diplomacy is a tool of adversaries, not friends. When Americans (or Canadian or British citizens, other frequent targets of hostage diplomacy) are arrested for leverage, it’s always amid international tensions.

Prisoner swaps work to bring hostages home …

In many ways, Griner’s release was typical of prisoner exchange in these cases. Since Griner’s arrest, for instance, the Biden administration has negotiated prisoner swaps to bring home Trevor Reed from Russia, Mark Frerichs from Afghanistan and a half-dozen wrongful detainees from Venezuela. These exchanges work to secure hostages’ freedom.

But that does not mean that the United States – or any other target country – always has the power to make a deal. For instance, the White House has emphasized that it did not have concessions that Russia would accept in exchange for Paul Whelan, a former Marine imprisoned in Russia since 2018. Siamak Namazi has been imprisoned in Iran since 2015; Austin Tice has been missing in Syria for a decade. To date, the U.S. government has seemed willing but unable to bring them home.

Ultimately, the hostage-taking states have the upper hand. They can choose to make a swap or not. Barring credible punishments, target governments search for creative options and appropriate sacrifices to bring their citizens home.

… but we don’t know the consequences

Making concessions, like high-profile prisoner swaps, may increase future risk. Would-be hostage takers may view the Griner-Bout trade and see an opportunity to coerce concessions from the United States.

Such is the logic behind a “no concessions” policy: Deny hostage-takers the benefits of their violence, and they will stop taking hostages. However, as I have argued elsewhere, neither the United States nor its allies have consistently followed the putative “no concessions” approach.

Existing research suggests that making concessions can incentivize hostage-taking: Countries that paid ransoms were more likely to experience a subsequent increase in terrorist kidnappings. While this logic may travel to hostage diplomacy, existing research cannot tell us for sure.

There will be blowback

Since Griner’s release, there has been a torrent of criticism, largely from Republicans, over several elements of this deal. Some have criticized Biden’s judgment in releasing Bout, a convicted criminal responsible for fueling conflict all over the world. Others have faulted the president for not securing Whelan’s release. Still others have focused on identity politics to accuse the administration of favoring a Black LGBTQ celebrity over a White male veteran.

As Lauren Prather and I show in our work, Americans have strong feelings about U.S. hostage recovery, and those feelings vary dramatically across hostages. In particular, people think some hostages are to blame for putting themselves in danger. Americans are less supportive of government assistance to bring such hostages home.

U.S. presidents face substantial criticism for bringing home hostages that the public thinks are not “deserving” of assistance, or failing to recover those who are. While official U.S. policy does not discriminate based on hostages’ identity or circumstances of capture, presidents should be ready to weather the public storm.

Note: Updated Sept. 18, 2023.

Image: (cc) Owen Byrne, Friday night in Red Square. St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, Nov. 24, 2017.