On August 3, the American Security Project hosted an event titled “Coercive Kidnapping & Political Hostage Taking in International Affairs.” ASP CEO Patrick Costello discussed the past, present, and future of hostage diplomacy with Dr. Danielle Gilbert, a Rosenwald Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy and International Security at the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College.
The conversation began with Costello asking Gilbert to discuss the history of hostage diplomacy and the current threat landscape. Gilbert explained that there has been an overall increase in the number of political hostage incidents over the last decade. During the 1980s and through the 2000s, most kidnappings of American citizens abroad were perpetrated by terrorist and insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). However, in the last decade, starting at the end of the Obama administration and continuing through to today, more Americans are being held by nation states than by non-state actors. Gilbert clarified that these hostages are held through unlawful detainment and the primary countries holding Americans abroad include Iran, Venezuela, Russia, China, North Korea, Myanmar, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey.
Costello and Gilbert then discussed the tension between the executive branch, which has broad policy objectives, families, who are worried about their loved ones, and members of Congress, who are advocating on behalf of their constituents, in resolving unlawful detention cases. Gilbert unpacked current U.S. policy and the different approaches when dealing with state and non-state actors.
The event closed with a discussion surrounding efforts to establish a global ban on political hostage taking, the role of the U.S. military, and disparities in media coverage for Americans being held abroad. Gilbert stated that she hopes to see stronger and more complete official definitions for the terms surrounding this field, explaining that before the U.S. can solve this problem, it must first be able to clearly identify and define it.