The recent call by the UN Security Council that governments should refrain from paying ransoms to organisations which take hostages represents a common sense position which I support.
At the outset, I should point out that I have thankfully never been taken as a hostage, nor have I ever endured the unspeakable horror of having a loved one held as a hostage. If I were to find myself in either of those situations tomorrow, I wonder whether I would still have the courage of my stated convictions or whether necessity and convenience would tempt me to view my predicament in isolation.
Those who pay ransoms have argued that doing so is cheap at the price if one considers the value of a human life. The argument is not without merit. In addition, it is difficult to condemn those who have been compelled by circumstance to lean towards complying with the hostage taker’s demands.
Hostage taking cannot, however, be viewed in isolation. Hostage takers require ransoms to reward their efforts. If everyone adhered to a no-ransom policy, hostage taking would end. No doubt, the resolve of all those who adhere to a no-ransom policy would initially be tested, and a few lives might initially be lost in the cause. But if everyone stayed the course and refused to pay up, hostage situations would be a thing of the past.
Every person who is now a hostage or who is confronted with a loved one who is a hostage has reason to direct their anger not only towards the perpetrators, but also towards those who reward them. Every ransom paid to the terrorist organisations who kidnap foreigners encourages future such operations.
Britain and the United States do not pay ransoms as a matter of policy. Some European governments do, however. It should come as no surprise that some terrorist groups have now started to make a point of not wasting their time by kidnapping hostages from countries that do not pay ransoms.
In addition, the paying of ransoms to such organisations has two other consequences. The funds, amounting to millions, are often used to purchase arms for other terrorist activities. Secondly the kidnappers often flaunt their ill-gotten gains in front of innocent, impressionable and often poor bystanders, including young people from their communities. The potential to corrupt a new generation of hostage takers is obvious. Should we really be funding the lesson that terrorism and hostage taking pays?
However, it is not only governments who pay ransoms who are in effect sponsoring terrorism and future hostage taking. The role played by insurance companies who specialise in this type of insurance cannot be ignored.
Perhaps it is time for the legality of this type of insurance product to be considered. I say this in full awareness of the fact that many people who do business or perform contract work in certain third world countries will only do so if such insurance is in place. Any laws to render such insurance products and the payment of ransoms by insurers illegal will no doubt face an uphill battle, to say nothing of legal challenges. If successful, however, the rewards for hostage taking will vanish.
Perhaps the only solution is the drastic one of criminalising very act of paying a ransom. Whilst this probably makes sense in theory, the problem is that the enforcement of such a law would by no means be simple.
Those who pay ransoms to save the lives of loved ones are probably unlikely to be found guilty of a crime in countries with a jury system. Jury members would be very sympathetic.
The existing criminal justification ground of necessity could, in any event, be invoked by an accused in any such criminal case.
The defence of necessity was first accepted into most Western legal systems when an accused, who had been stuck on board a lifeboat which had been at sea for some time, raised it his defence against a charge of cannibalism. He had eaten the flesh one of a fellow survivor who had died and relied upon extreme hunger and his need to survive as circumstances which made his actions necessary. (It did not help that he happened to be found and rescued the very next day.)
In a defence to any criminal charge of paying a ransom, the argument would be that the ransom payer was forced into a situation where he was compelled to choose between an illegal act i.e. payment of the ransom or to save the life of a loved one. The argument would be that the criminal act was not serious when viewed against the life saved. This would be a compelling argument, even in criminal systems that do not have a jury.
The only way for the State to overcome this argument would be to rely on the devastating knock-on consequences society suffers as a result of the payment of ransoms. The law criminalising the payment of ransoms would have to specify, and the State would have to prove, that the potential endangerment of the lives of many other innocent people to save the single life of a loved-one is not justifiable.
Any such law should also include a penalty which, whilst being harsh enough to serve as a deterrent, would also recognise the horrible predicament any person accused of transgressing it would face.
It is clear that bringing an end to hostage taking by criminalising the payment of ransoms would not be without its fair share of challenges, and it would indeed be a drastic step if implemented. However, we should not let the size of the challenge dissuade us from finding and implementing some or other common sense solution.
Perhaps the key to addressing the problem is to distinguish between ransoms paid to terrorist organisations by governments and corporations and all other ransoms.
Whatever the case, all that is needed for evil to prevail is for good men and women to sit about doing nothing. Hostage taking is an evil worthy of being addressed.
In closing, the reader will appreciate that I cannot condemn those who pay ransoms to free family members with the same gusto that I condemn the payment of ransoms.
I have considerable empathy for all those who are, or have been affected by hostage taking. At the very least, we can all agree that a hostage free, ransom free world is something worth striving for and it is to this end that I have put up some ideas for consideration.