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Should ransom payments be made to terrorist groups to secure the release of hostages?

Should ransom payments be made to terrorist groups to secure the release of hostages?

By Aashna Sheth

Edited by Anandita Malhotra,Senior editor,The Indian Economist

Journalist James Foley’s unscrupulous killing by the ISIS has been the focal point of media attention during the past few weeks. Stationed in Syria to cover the crisis, Foley, who had been missing for the past 7 months, was beheaded by the ISIS and a video addressed to the United States portraying his murder was posted on popular social networking sites. Creating tension and complicating the United States’ involvement on the war in Syria, this brutal murder raises several questions regarding hostages, militant groups and the pressing dilemma regarding ransom payments.

Days before his execution, the ISIS appealed to the United States Government demanding a multi-million dollar ransom payment. The United States, sticking firmly to its stand against ransom payment, refused to do so. The question regarding ransom payments for the release of hostages dates back to the 1970s wherein the British clearly expressed their stand against paying off terrorists to release hostages. The question that we need to ask is a relevant albeit confusing one; are the United States and United Kingdom justified in their stand against ransom payments to terrorist groups?

The United Nations expressed its consideration on this issue in its 2001 Resolution on Anti-Terrorism (Resolution 1373/2001). Its first operative clause, which did not explicitly use the term ‘ransom’, connotatively portrayed in sub-clauses (a) to (d) the prevention and criminalization of financing terrorist activities. Phrases such as ‘criminalize the willful provision of funds to carry out terrorist acts’ and ‘prohibit their nationals or any persons and entities within their territories from making any funds, financial assets or economic resources or financial or other related services available’ indirectly indicate the need to prevent payment to secure the release of hostages.

One of the primary reasons behind such a lucrative stand is financing terrorist activity. Governments of the United States and United Kingdom believe that conceding to ransom payments further fuels kidnappings and murders as these ransom amounts indirectly fund terrorist activity. The money required for training, weapons and technology could be attributed in large parts to earnings from ransom payments. This aspect was reiterated further during the G8 summit in 2013 and a 2014 Security Council Resolution drafted by the United Kingdom wherein the UK urged member nations to hold a strong stand against these payments in the face of kidnappings of its citizens.

Despite the UN Resolutions and G8 agreements along with the vociferous debate against ransom payments, Canada, France and Germany have conceded to the same. It was alleged that four French men kidnapped in Niger were released after a 20 million euro payment despite the French Government denying its involvement in the transaction activity. More so, 3 Spanish hostages were released earlier this year upon payments by intermediaries. The differing policies of the United States and United Kingdom on one side and other European countries on another have further augmented the tension surrounding the ‘War against Terrorism’.

While there’s no denying that ransom payments fund and can even increase and spread terrorist activity, the situation needs to be looked at from more than one perspective. When citizens of a country are taken hostage, the situation is usually amplified by the media thereby putting the government in a difficult position.  The Government’s job is not an easy one; it is to kill 3 birds with one stone. It has to try and secure the release of the hostage to the best of its ability, it has to be answerable to the frenzy created by the media stirring the sentiments of the people in the country and more importantly it has to appease the families of hostages who languish in the misery of the possibility of their loved ones not returning. In dire circumstances such as these, paying a ransom is probably the easiest way out as it allows the government to achieve all of its objectives.

Yet, what other alternatives can the government resort to? Military action could further exacerbate the situation. Negotiations can be made between the Governments and the militants; however the failure to reach a middle ground could lead to no fruition ultimately resulting in the militants decapitating the hostage. The situation can also be looked at from the perspective of a case-by-case basis. Different forms of action can be taken depending upon the different situations they encounter. Some policy makers believe that these issues need to be publically debated wherein countries should be answerable for their own actions.

This puzzling question regarding ransom payments to secure the release of hostages is not one with a clear answer. The problem, just like other policy issues, presents itself as a double-edged sword. The United States and United Kingdom confer their stand against the same as they fight the war against terrorism looking at the situation in the macrocosm of humanitarianism. Yet, countries, which concede to these payments, aim to secure the safety of their own citizens as they try and achieve all their objectives to the best of their ability. Policy makers must strive to achieve a middle ground, where their focus should primarily be based on securing the release of hostages keeping in mind the sensitivity of the issue and the political milieu. Coming up with a solution to a problem that has lives of people on the line, engulfs policy makers in a gut-wrenching and morally difficult dilemma which must be tackled with the utmost care and sensitivity.

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