Hostage Diplomacy as an International Security Threat: Strengthening our Collective Action, Deterrence and Response

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This transcript is from an event hosted on February 13, 2024. Watch the full video here.

Panel 1: Situating Hostage Diplomacy as an International Security Threat

Jon B. Alterman: Good afternoon and thank you all for coming. I want to start by thanking Global Affairs Canada, the State Department, and the Woodrow Wilson Center for supporting this event and for being partners all along. I also have to say, it is always such a pleasure for me to see my friends Haleh Esfandiari, Siamak Namazi, both of whom were very good friends before their time in Evin Prison. And every time I see them free, it is deeply meaningful to me. I’m also happy to see my friend Jason Rezaian. Jason and I are the co-executive directors of the CSIS's bipartisan Commission on Hostage Taking and Wrongful Detention. Many of our commissioners are in the room. Others are watching online. Very difficult and important work. But I think the most important work I can be doing. And I'm grateful for their partnership. Jason, as I said, was in Evin prison for 544 days. I'm tired of having friends who have been in Evin Prison. This really has to stop.

We have a remarkable panel to discuss this issue from a security perspective. First, we have Jennifer Daskal. She's deputy homeland security advisor and deputy assistant to the president. She's had a number of administration positions. And before that, worked as a professor of law at American University. My friend Dani Gilbert is an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern and a member of our bipartisan hostage commission. She previously taught at the Air Force Academy and worked for four years on Capitol Hill. Rachel Briggs is co-founder and CEO of Clarity Factory, a consultancy that works with the private sector, governments, foundations, and nonprofits. She is the founding executive director of Hostage US and the first director of Hostage UK, which works to support the families of hostages and wrongly detained individuals. She was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) ten years ago for services to hostages and their families. Finally, Professor John Packer is the Neuberger-Jesin professor of international conflict resolution at the University of Ottawa. He's worked extensively with the United Nations (UN) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) on issues related to peace processes, political transitions, conflict prevention and resolution, and human rights. What a great panel.

And, you know, I think the way to start is just to start with the practical issues. Jen works these issues every day. Tell me, what's been the administration's approach to wrongful detention, and what tools do you have to respond to the actions? As the Secretary, and the Minister said, our adversaries aren't playing by the rules and are using American citizens and citizens of other countries as pawns.

Jennifer Daskal: Thanks, Jon, and thanks for the introduction and thanks to the Wilson Center, CSIS, the State Department, especially the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs (SPEHA), and the entire team in Canada as well for hosting this really important set of discussions. They're critical. As deputy homeland security advisor, I've had the opportunity to meet with families who have a loved one unjustly detained abroad. And I can tell you that it is President Biden's priority, truly, since day one, to be able to tell each and every one of those families that your loved one is coming home. And over the past three years, as you heard Secretary Blinken discuss, we've made enormous progress towards that goal. We brought more than 60 fellow Americans home from countries all around the world, including Russia, Venezuela, Burma, Afghanistan, Haiti, Rwanda, West Africa, and more. This includes the 45 wrongfully detained individuals that Secretary Blinken mentioned, plus hostages and individuals who have been kidnapped for ransom. And we're not stopping there. Our entire team up to the president is working constantly to try to secure the release of all of our fellow Americans who remain captive around the world.

Now, all of you know that what is required to achieve that varies by case. Recovering a hostage from terrorists demands a different set of tactics and tools than negotiating the release of a wrongfully detained American who's being held by a nation-state. And we’ve also taken some very important steps to try to prevent and protect against this, Jon, as you asked about from the beginning. First, President Biden signed an executive order to strengthen the consequences applied against perpetrators who use Americans as pawns. This means more collaboration across the government, and as part of this effort, we announced last year the first ever sanctions against those actors who were engaged in this heinous practice of taking Americans and detaining them wrongfully. As you heard Secretary Blinken discuss, we've worked robustly with international partners on preventing wrongful detentions in the first place. We are among 74 other nations that have signed the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention and work together to mount collective pressure against the states that engage in this terrible practice. And third, we are taking steps to make sure Americans know not to travel to those kinds of countries that engage in this kind of practice. The State Department launched a new indicator called the “D indicator” for “Do Not Travel,” which warns Americans if there's a high threat of detention in the country which they plan to visit. And that should serve as a warning not to go to that country.

And finally, we're doing more than ever to support families from the moment we learn that their loved one has been detained or taken hostage. We work to keep them informed. We do this as an inter-agency, SPEHA plays a huge role in this. We connect them to support systems. We ask for their feedback and much, much more. This is critical to be able to provide support to the families and help support them as they're going through this incredibly painful process. So, thank you. Thanks for hosting this panel. Thanks for the opportunity to be here. I look forward to the discussion.

Dr. Alterman: Thank you very much for that. And thank you for coming. I'm sure it's an absolutely crazy schedule in the White House, and I'm grateful that you made time for us. Dani, you've thought rigorously about this as a political scientist. This is a phenomenon of statecraft. How can you help us think about this phenomenon of states using hostage taking as a national security strategy? How do we think about dividing state and non-state actors? Help us wrap our heads intellectually about what's going on here.

Danielle Gilbert: Well, thank you so much, Jon, and thank you to the Wilson Center and all the co-hosts for having me here today. So, as we've heard from all our speakers so far, what we're talking about here today—whether we call it arbitrary detention or wrongful detention or hostage diplomacy—there is a large set of issues that we're talking about. There are legal problems, there are human rights problems, and this is a security problem as well. So, at its basic distillation, hostage taking is conditional detention. It's taking and holding a human captive to coerce someone else to change their behavior. And hostage taking is an ancient crime. It's been around since the earliest written records of war. And over that time, it has shifted from a tactic of states to a tactic of non-state actors. And over the last decade, we've really seen it emerge as a tactic of hostile, autocratic state actors once again. In that time we've seen a wide range of hostage-taking tactics as well from kidnappings to hijackings, to barricade incidents and, in the last decade or so, this phenomenon of wrongful detention, in which states use their criminal justice system to take foreigners hostage. I think of this, in effect, as a form of hostage taking carried out under the color and guise of law, and it specifically targets, usually, democratic countries who are extremely vulnerable to this form of hostage taking for several reasons.

First, democracies like Canada and the United States care deeply about the international rule of law and about reciprocity, about an understanding that law means something, that our word means something and that we won't treat people arbitrarily in the international system. Democracies are also vulnerable because of our values. Governments in democracies care about the health and safety and well-being of their citizens, whether they are at home or abroad. And so, they're deeply affected when their citizens are held unjustly and reprehensibly in this way. In democracies, there's also electoral accountability. Leaders feel pressure from their publics who really can't tolerate seeing this kind of detention ongoing. In my opinion, we should think of wrongful detention as a specific type of hostage taking, because it uses that conditionality, that threat of continuing to hold someone captive in order to coerce a wide range of concessions from government adversaries.

There are a few ways in which it's meaningfully different from some of the other forms of hostage taking that have been most prominent over the last 50 or 60 years. Things like hijacking or kidnapping are different from hostage diplomacy in meaningful ways. One way that it's different is that when someone is kidnapped or hijacked, we might be worried that the hostage will lose their life in captivity. Typically, in wrongful detention, it’s about time. It's about losing meaningful portions of a person's life. It's the threat, not necessarily of killing the prisoner, but of holding them for years and years and years. In hostage diplomacy, in wrongful detention, there's a return address. We know where prisoners are being held. Maybe they're able to speak to their family or speak to a lawyer, but that doesn't mean that they're coming home any faster. In fact, sometimes it means they can be held for much longer periods of time. There's a very different set of responses that governments can use to bring home those who have been wrongfully detained versus those who are kidnapped by non-state actors. Rescue missions are a potential option for hostages held by non-state actors, whereas a much wider range of concessions are, frankly, on the table when we're talking about state perpetrators.

I'll end by talking about a couple of trends that we've seen in the last decade as wrongful detention and hostage diplomacy have been on the rise. So, we know that there are many more cases of this than we used to see. And that might be because we have named it. We're starting to count it. We have events like this that we are bringing attention to it. But frankly, I see it as just the latest form of hostage taking which actors will adopt because they know it works against their stronger democratic adversaries. And we also see it on the rise as a shift from the global war on terror, from insurgencies that frequently use kidnappings to a return of strategic competition, where most of the security focus in the international realm is state-to-state competition. The targets of hostage diplomacy are typically people who have an extraordinary amount of experience in the countries where they are being held captive. They work there. They might live there. They have families there. They might be dual nationals. Journalists, aid workers, NGOs, people who should be off limits for this kind of behavior. And finally, while there is an established collection of autocratic perpetrators who are using this tactic similarly, they seem to want different sets of things from their hostage taking actions. Some are interested in one-on-one prisoner swaps, whereas some other countries, like Iran, typically seem to be coercing a wider set of concessions as part of geopolitical deals.

Dr. Alterman: Thank you, Dani. It's a lot to think about. I think a lot of very helpful framing. And you gave us a sense for the motivation of the guys doing this. When Rachel and I were having a conversation last week, she pointed out this is basically about states breaking rules. Let’s talk about the states that follow the rules. What's your sense about the direction that states can and should be taking to enforce rules against states that don't want to obey or abide by the rules?

Rachel Briggs: Thank you for having me. And I'll, perhaps before I jump straight into that, I just wanted to emphasize how important the framing of today's event is. For those of us who have been working on these issues for 10, 15, 20 years, we started to see these cases emerge bit by bit. There was one in Iran. Something funny was going on in China. Somebody seemed to be caught up in Russia for no good reason. We started to see this trend emerging, somewhat the canary in the coal mine. And over time, as Dani said, we've started to name this thing and we've started to see it emerging and we understand it now as a trend.

But I think it's really important that we do see this as the thin end of a much bigger wedge. This is a group of countries who are using arbitrary detention, and they're also using a heck of a lot of other tools in their toolbox that they shouldn't be using to be aggressive, to behave in a way to push buttons and to get their own way. And so it's very important that we frame this in this broader context. It is not just about finding ways to bring home people who were arrested, seized for no other good reason than the color of their passport. And that comes from somebody who's dedicated the last 20 years to working on that issue. Getting people home is critically important, the most important objective here. But we mustn't lose sight of the fact that this is just one of the tools in the toolbox of a group of countries who have decided, “To heck with the international rule of law. To heck with the rules that everybody else abides by. We're going to do things differently.” That has to frame how we respond to this. And what it means is that our responses have to be the following: they've got to be very serious, they've got to be absolutely sustained, they've got to be incredibly well-resourced, they've got to be very creative. We've got to do some creative stuff here because we are dealing with people who are being very creative around the rules. And finally, they've got to be courageous. We've got to get really comfortable with being uncomfortable in the way that we deal with these issues. We must not get into our safe space, our cozy space. We've got to get really courageous and really uncomfortable and really creative.

And to answer your question, Jon, what can we do? There's two things that I wanted to highlight. Perhaps some of the stuff might come up in conversation. I wanted to start with the importance of getting ourselves coordinated. And let me start within the national sphere. I had the pleasure of living in the United States for five years, 2015 to 2020, as I was setting up and running Hostage US, and handed it off now to my incredible, former coworker Liz Cathcart, and what I saw during that period was a 180-degree turn around within the US government. I mean, pretty extraordinary.

And I cannot emphasize enough the importance of having that Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. Somebody who is able to have a singular focus and one agenda item, and it's always the same item. And in these issues of course there’s bilateral concerns. “This trade deal is this or that.” Of course. Let's be honest and grown up about this. There are always competing demands around that table. So having somebody who's only got one agenda item and they're just going to keep repeating it over and over again is incredibly important. And it gets this the attention that it deserves. It also has done an extraordinary job of building up expertise. And while it is true to say that each case has its uniqueness, there is a trend here. And having an office, having a collective place where all of that institutional memory comes so it doesn't get lost when somebody gets rotated out of the job. What we learn in Iran doesn't get lost in how we're dealing with Russia and vice versa, although there are there are differences. We centralize our knowledge. Together, there's a continuity. And you have a team of people who are able to see, recognize, and communicate the reality, which is there are trends across cases, country and time. And it's really important that we don't lose that knowledge.

The two things that I wanted to point out as being really special features of that particular institutional arrangement is the following: one is pitching it at the right level. You have to have somebody in that role who has the ear of every single decision-maker they need to reach. So seniority matters, I'm afraid, you've got to have influence. You've got to have the ability to get in the door and get around the table and be heard. And the second thing that's really important, and I really applaud the way that Ambassador Carstens has gone about this, because this wasn't a given, is bringing together a team of all the talents. I have to say, it's one of the things I really tip my hat to you Americans about, because your willingness to bring around the table yourselves, of course, businesspeople, journalists, NGOs, former hostages, their families, anybody who influences diaspora communities. And I think having that attitude, which is: this is a very complicated problem, we need to get everybody around the table who's got a sliver of expertise or influence that they might bring to bear to make the impossible happen. That team of all the talents is incredibly important.

To close this, I should note as well that I know a number of other countries are now following the model that we have in the United States. It's something I've called on for years now, and I'm so thankful to see that this is happening. I can't understand why any country that is touched by this problem would not have that institutional arrangement. And then secondly, on a very practical level, we heard from our politicians earlier in the event about the importance of this coalition of working together internationally. Great job in bringing together all those countries. I mean, it's a coalition, it’s an extraordinary collection of countries standing united against this. And it's time to operationalize things. It's time to not just say, how do we, as one country, get our house in order and be as efficient and productive as humanly possible? It's about then saying when things are happening operationally around the world, how do we as Americans, as Canadians, as Brits, as French, as Germans, as Japanese, how do we come together as a team? Of course, we've got our own interests. But what does it mean when I, as a Brit, make a certain decision? What does that mean for that person that you're trying to get out? And in the same circumstance, how can we share information? How can we tag-team? How can we try and do a deal together? How can we not just be really efficient and productive ourselves as countries, but how can we bring that same ethos and that same team of all the talents together? Every single time this happens to one of us, it happens to all of us.

I hope that if anything positive can come out of the truly dreadful events in Gaza and those poor hostages whom we are still trying to come home, I hope that maybe it is in a time-limited, highly pressured situation that governments have, whether they feel forced to do so or whether they have willingly done that, they have absolutely realized the power of operationally coming together in real-time. Tag-teaming. If it happens to one, it happens to all. And so I hope we can see that concept so beautifully personified through the office of the SPEHA maybe becoming something that becomes operationalized in individual cases, internationally as well.

Dr. Alterman: Thank you. Rachel. John, you have served in an alphabet soup of international organizations and institutions, and you've thought deeply about how international relations work in a practical way. I was wondering first if you could address the issue that Rachel sort of highlighted about international cooperation. Where should we institutionalize it? Where should we do it? Is it important that it's sort of tied to an institution or several institutions?

I think the other piece is when you have countries that are breaking the rules, they decide to break the rules. What does that mean about how the international community is working? Is there a community? And if there's not, what do we do about that?

John Packer: Thank you very much. First, thank you for the invitation to join this important conversation, and thank you for the opportunity to share some views. I have to say that my observation is that it's not good out there. The trends fundamentally are not conducive. It is a valid question. Is there an international community? This is a phrase we use. I would suggest there isn't. There are communities. One of the features of the world in which we live is increasingly complex inter and non-interdependencies. We see, for example, separations and increasing divisions. I'm not so encouraged, I'm sorry to say, by the 70 or so countries that have signed up to the Declaration that Canada initiated, because I know, and we should all know, that the basic prohibition of arbitrary detention is well-established already from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. I mean, the normative side is well-established, almost universally agreed.

And it kind of begs the question, where are the other 120 countries that are hesitating to sign on to this, right? And I think the answer is because they're not really sold on it anymore. I mean, we've just seen Russia pulling out not only of the Council of Europe but now out of specific instruments like the Framework Convention of the Protection of National Minorities, giving up on the Moscow Mechanism in the OSCE and so forth and so on. So, we have to count as a fact here that the world is messy. And as a former boss of mine once told me, he said, "We don't only have friends,” which is to say, “We increasingly have enemies.” There are those who are opposed. There are actors who are not acting in good faith. They're acting in positively bad faith. There are those who are profiting from the instability and the deterioration. They are sowing the seeds, and they are utilizing exactly these fissures, fractures, they want them to be fissures in the international system. This is obviously problematic.

I would go a step further to say a feature I can disclose to you that I also sit on the board of Human Rights Watch Canada, and the methodology of many human rights organizations has been based on this idea of mobilizing shame. If we would reveal, expose, and so forth. We're living in a shameless world. So that thesis or the theory of change is not very useful or instrumental. If we talk about operationalizing, we have to rethink how do you operationalize in a situation where you're actually dealing with bad actors in terms of their intentions, in their faith? So, how to do this? I'm not so sold. I mean, I worked for almost ten years in the OSCE, I was the legal advisor for the Director of the Office of the High Commission on National Minorities still a lot of a tailored institution that has a little lesson from it, because when that institution was created in 1992, in a second Helsinki Summit after the Cold War, they carefully circumscribed the mandate and they said it's not for national minorities. It was on situations affecting relations between states, and then they precluded actually acting on individual cases, interestingly enough, to kind of engage in these problematical situations.

The reason I say that is because I think it's very important to make qualitative distinctions here. I first was involved, with just one sentence on this, with hostage taking in Iraq in the early 1990s. I was assistant to the first UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iraq, and went to Abu Ghraib prison. And there was a guy, a Brit, who had bicycled into northern Iraq, oblivious to the situation in the world. The Iraqis put him in jail, Abu Ghraib, and slapped a 20-year sentence on him and instrumentalized him. They wouldn’t have cared too much before, they would get the guy out, some penalty. They instrumentalized him for inter-state relations. That's a very different thing than when I worked in Yemen, and they were Americans taken hostage by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who were either doing it for money or for local political reasons. That’s simply a different qualitative matter, and I think we need to make that distinction, which Professor Gilbert has written about.

How do we do this? I'm not sure that a kind of universalist approach, at this moment in time, is going to be effective. The list of the, if I may say, bad actors is growing. Read Freedom House reports, 20 years of diminished democracies and so forth. So I think we have to really look at tailoring how we respond, not only with those actors who are going to understand what is problematical about this for real international relations, even bad actors have interests in real international relations.

And the second element in that is not only what the norm element would be, but I think we have to think about what are effective recourses.

At the moment it's not clear to me where you go with this kind of problem, except specific domestic institutions, such as here. Is there someplace to go? That could be early, the preventive argument could be effective. There are certain means of quiet. I'm not sure that we need to legalize this, but we need to have some kind of investment in it. I think we probably, for all of this, need some more, tailored and specific research about the kinds of cases, what exactly is happening, what works where and why. And I'm not sure that we have that at the moment.

Dr. Alterman: Thank you. Jen, one of the themes here is the bad guys are learning. So, what have we learned works? And how do we keep a step ahead of the bad guys?

Ms. Daskal: Thanks. I strongly agree with the end of of the last statement, which is that the cases are not the same, the cases are different. And one of the reasons why I think it takes so long sometimes to figure out these cases is because the actors on the other side are different. They have different interests, they have different personalities, they have different strategic interests. And in each and every case, we are in a position of trying to figure out what the position is of the other side and come to a resolution where in the particular interests of getting our Americans home, we can achieve that. So I think there's not a single answer to the problem of bringing Americans home or bringing any other nationals home. If there were, this would be a much easier problem to deal with unfortunately. And our job, my job, the job of SPEHA, the job of many others across the US government and elsewhere, is to work continuously to try to figure out what those levers are and take the opportunities when they arise.

We also, as I said, think about how we try to protect against additional arbitrary detentions and hostages. And I think the D-notice, the State Department notices of do not travel, are important. Americans should not travel to countries that have a level four do not travel warning. I do think having nations stand together and collectively condemn countries that are engaged in these practices matters.

I also think that President Biden's executive order and the subsequent issuance of sanctions, for the first time ever, starting in May of 2023 against those who were engaged in these practices, matters. We're not going to solve this problem overnight, unfortunately, but we can keep trying. I can tell you that President Biden is committed to trying and it is a top priority. And I can tell you that Roger, who's sitting here nodding, is committed to trying. And there are people across the US government who are deeply committed to working on these issues.

Dr. Alterman: This is open to anybody. I mean, to me, it's notable that some of the countries that that seem to have embraced this are countries like Russia and China that have complicated, often adversarial relations, with the United States, but a lot that they can hold at risk. Are they trying to change the nature of our relationships? Are they just trying to gain a marginal advantage? If we think broadly about national security issues and international relations, is this a big thing by big countries, or is this a small thing by big countries that just want a huge basket of things to draw from? Packer, anybody?

Prof. Packer: Just a few quick reactions to that. First, allow me to clarify that I fully agree. I think it was very important. And I remember watching on television the mobilization by the Canadian government in Beijing, of, representative states standing together saying, we're watching and we don't accept this. That's different than saying, is there a norm that we're elaborating? If you can't get everyone around that norm, you're in trouble. So this is all that I'm pointing out is we're in the arbitrary detention norm as such is a well-established norm. So there's something else here we have to pay attention to. What I want to say is, I think it's very hard to answer the question because a lot of the cases have specificity. You know, the two Michaels and Huawei, the CEO, very peculiar situation in terms of who, in particular on the Chinese side, we were talking about.

So how much—and that's why I think we need more research, to really drill down a bit and categorize here sensibly—are there peculiarities about certain persons, conditions, cases, types of states and increasingly non-state actors? I mean, the world is getting more and more. It was your Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who gave us the fragile, failing, and so forth. And if you look at indices, there are more and more states in that fat category of failing, fragile, and uncertain. And there's a whole lot of non-state actors in between there that, you know, don't adhere to these norms and so forth.

But I also notice the asymmetrical aspect of this. So what's happening here is that the weaker actors, in some ways, even if they're maybe not weaker like a China has powerful levers it could use, but they're kind of reverting to a kind of unsophisticated, I mean, hostage taking goes back time immemorial. Tribal groups, the pre-state, you know, have done this. This is not sophisticated in its essential character, and also the other element here is not just the asymmetrical. There is an interest of some actors purposefully to destabilize, to sow the seeds. So you're not going to solve that problem by better norms, better mechanisms. No, their position is they're delighted with precisely the kind of mischief that this causes.

Prof. Gilbert: Yeah. I would align myself with much of what John said. So, it's been interesting to me as an observer that when we think about Russia and China specifically in their use of this, yes, they are weaker actors than the United States, but they're not weak actors. It's been interesting that the way that those cases have unfolded has largely been one for one, or one for two prisoner swaps. We have not seen, you know, my colleagues here who know what happens behind the scenes might know differently, but we haven't seen the resolution of these cases be for larger geopolitical concessions or other kinds of things that those states could plausibly demand. And I think that's a very good thing. They're making this about something specific. They would accuse us of doing it first or doing it too.

The two Michaels case, they would say, started with the arrest of Meng Wanzhou. And in many of these cases they point fingers and say that you do this as well. And that is a rhetorical claim that is undermining this understanding of the rules and kind of questioning global leadership of the West, of the liberal international order, and things like that. And in addition to coercing these concessions, it serves to embarrass leaders as well. It's not exclusively about getting that prisoner back or getting that concession, but about making things exceptionally difficult for leaders of democratic states. 

Dr. Alterman: Rachel, I was struck by your comment that we need to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Is part of that not playing by the rules ourselves? And what does that look like?

Ms. Briggs: That's such a good question. Well, I'm going to veer away from the deterrence question. Part of what you're asking. Because that's just not my field of expertise. And this is such an important and critical policy issue that I think it's imperative on all of us not to stray into territory where we're out of our expertise level. So I'm going to put that to one side. And others might answer your question from that perspective. I think we have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable because we've got to behave in different ways. So I'm not necessarily saying, by any stretch of the imagination, we must start breaking international laws and we must sort of rip up treaties. Of course we're not. I mean, I'm very much of the school of thinking, you know, when they go low, we go high. We have to remain ourselves. We have to maintain our values. We have to be true to ourselves in the face of this dreadful activity. But it does, on many levels, require us to do things that we haven't been used to doing.

You know, I talked about having a team of all the talents. Now, on paper, that's a really uncomfortable thing for somebody to do who has clearance in the State Department or the White House. The prospect of bringing around the table a group of people who were not cleared, who were not necessarily inside the foreign policy tent day in, day out, on what is an incredibly sensitive area of national security. You take risks. And I've seen it in practice, not just here, but in in my own country back in the UK, individuals taking risks on bringing you in, sharing stuff that maybe on paper they shouldn't be sharing with you, but they know they can trust you. And what will come from that is a positive outcome somewhere down the road.

So there's a whole set of behaviors, there's a whole set of activities, that will be crucially important to solving this problem. Whether it's bringing somebody home, preventing people from traveling in the first place, or deterring this activity from happening at all, which requires people with security clearance getting comfortable dealing with people who don't have security clearance. People who work in the private sector feeling comfortable coming into the State Department to work on, help in a way, on government type stuff. It's not just government that sort of has to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

But if we don't get creative in this space, if we're not willing to kind of rip up some of the rules, not the laws, not the international frameworks, but if we're not willing to rip up some of those rules about how we're supposed to behave and who's supposed to be in the room and who's supposed to do what, we just simply won't solve this. And so that's what I was getting at. I'm absolutely not advocating that we sort of start behaving like them, but they are being very creative. And if we don't get creative quickly, we're just not going to solve the problem.

Dr. Alterman: Okay. I think we have some note cards. If people have questions, we'll try to get a few questions before we have to break. And I guess we're running a little bit late, so we'll try to move things along. What does hostage-taking mean for the way international security is evolving? We all talked about how this is happening more and more. Is it just going to be a messier and more lawless space? And if so, what can we do to bring it back? 

Ms. Daskal: Before we go there, I want to respond to Rachel's comment because I want to be clear, we, I, do not endorse sharing classified information or sharing particularly sensitive information externally. That said, you know, I meet with families. Roger and his team meet with families. We talk to people from the outside and particularly in some of these hard cases, you know, we want to hear the ideas that the families bring to us. We want to hear the ideas that other people bring to us. Having families put pressure and apply leverage in the right place can be extraordinarily useful. So I think, well, again, we don't endorse sharing information that is protected or privileged, but absolutely think that it is essential that we have conversations. And we do have those conversations with a range of actors. And that's an important part of how we work on some of these cases.

Dr. Alterman: John, you're nodding. I mean, what does this mean for the way we should expect countries to be engaging with each other. Is this going to be a trend? There's just more messiness and lawlessness and shamelessness? 

Prof. Packer: I think that is a trend at the moment. I don't see it going the other way. I actually see most international organizations becoming destabilized, thinner in their normative coherence. I mean, a lot of questions. Will the OSCE survive this year? It hasn’t been budgeted for 2 or 3 years. Right now, the institutions only have nine-month mandates. The UN, you know, the Security Council, and so forth, we could have long conversations. But many, many organizations at the multilateral level are really having a tough time. And I think that's just a reflection of the realities of the world. The consensuses are thin. Now, what do we do about that? I mean, we faced these periods before. Historically, the world has. And even on this specific topic, I was struck by something that, Dani wrote, because I almost forgot that hijacking was like a routine thing. About 40 years ago, when I certainly remember.

Dr. Alterman: When we were young. 

Prof. Packer: Yeah, when we were young. I mean, it was almost a weekly thing, right? On the news, and it was so much so. I fly a lot like probably many people here. It almost doesn't enter my mind anymore that there's going to be a hijacking. Other things I worry about, but not hijacking. There were some simple things which were done that technically address that. But that was also in a period of coherence, coming together at the end of the Cold War, which then gave rise to the 90s and so forth. I'm not sure there's a simple technical fix on this, like carrier sanctions or things like that. But I do think it is worth considering. For example, I'm struck that I don't think there's been a review of conventional diplomatic relations or the conventional consular relations in quite a long time. I don't know if it's worth tailoring some kind of, you know, things evolve. People might be surprised to know that often we talk about the Geneva Conventions, then we talk about the two additional protocols. But there is a third protocol adopted about 10 or 15 years ago on symbols because it had to do with the reality of things changing. So maybe we need to tweak something here. I don't know, maybe it's not a hard law instrument. Maybe we need some kind of a consensus document on specifically inter-state relations.

This is disruptive. It is problematical. But we have bad actors. I don't know the answer for it. I think we have to think about it. We have to do research. And I'm pretty convinced ultimately, we live in a complex, interdependent world, and the costs of this are probably going to mount if they continue.

Dr. Alterman: So let me ask you a question about cost. We got a really important question from the audience. How do we balance the difficult calculation of swaps in individual cases versus the risk of incentivizing this practice? And of course, swaps are sometimes individuals and sometimes it's paying ransom, essentially. How do we think about unpacking that problem? How do we make sure we're not creating the problem we're trying to solve?

Ms. Briggs: Yeah, I might have something to add here. From my experience of working not just these cases, but kidnap for ransom cases, looking back over many years, what strikes me is that it's really important to distinguish between that of which we do to get somebody home and the imperatives which sit around protection of life, the state's role to protect its citizens, and then what we do to end the crime. And too often we conflate the two and say, well, we end the crime by doing something different in the negotiation piece. We end the crime by not conceding. We and in those countries, and this is talking about kidnap for ransom countries, and I know that the parallel isn't exactly the same, but in those countries that, for example, banned ransom payments, made it illegal, it did not end the crime. It sent it underground, and it made it much more dangerous, much more complicated for families. Essentially what was realized in those countries where it had become endemic was the way that we solve this is by tackling the root causes. What is it that sort of creates this economy? Let's unpack that. And that was ultimately how those problems were solved. And I think that, you know, while these are different types of cases, there are there are some similarities here.

Now in kidnap for ransom cases where it's about money, I can tell you categorically if one of my loved ones is taken, as actually they were 30 years ago, I would remortgage my home, I would sell all my possessions, I would do whatever I absolutely could to get them home. Now, you don't have as much of that leverage in state hostage cases because of what's being asked and who's around the table. But it is not completely unknown for families to be able to solve these cases themselves. I can think of a number of examples off the top of my head where options were possible but didn't go through the government.

This is why this crime is the perfect crime. Because you take one individual and you say, well, it's just one individual, but actually it embodies so much more. And the family at the heart of this will do anything to get that person home. So you have to decouple that which you do to get somebody home from that which you do to end the crime. And it's really not helpful, in my view, to conflate the two.

Dr. Alterman: Any other thoughts on how we don't incentivize the problem ourselves? 

Prof. Gilbert: I will align myself entirely with everything that Rachel said. I think that a “no concessions” logic sounds quite appealing, right? We shouldn't reward bad actors. We worry that it incentivizes more violence. But it punishes the family. It punishes the hostage or the detainee. It is a temporal tradeoff between the person who is actually being held captive today versus the potential captives of tomorrow. And there is a major collective action problem. There is always this incentive to cheat. Someone is always willing to pay when their loved one's life is on the line. So making concessions or negotiating works to bring people home, as distasteful as that might be. But it works to bring people home. And so how do we think more broadly about a strategy that, on the one hand, is bringing our people home and thinking more broadly, the second panel today is going to talk about it, how do we deter this practice going forward? How do we condition other countries to change their behavior and work collectively to end the practice once and for all? 

Ms. Daskal: Yeah, I'll just add that. You know, the evidence doesn't bear out the premise. The evidence is not there that when we negotiate and we bring an American home, the country immediately goes back and picks up another American. It’s just not what happens. You look at the 60 people that this administration brought home. We have, I mean, obviously there have been some particular actors that have engaged in repeat bad actions, heinous actions. But as a whole, as a trend, it’s just not what we're seeing. So I just don't think the evidence bears out the premise. 

Dr. Alterman: Okay, I could do this all afternoon but we're actually running a little bit behind schedule. So, let me apologize to people whose questions, excellent questions, I didn’t get to ask. Let me very much thank the panelists, and again, thank the Wilson Center, Global Affairs Canada, for their partnership on this. And we look forward to the next panel with my friend Merissa. Thank you.

Panel 2: Frameworks and Collective Responses Against Arbitrary Detention

Merissa Khurma: Thank you so much, Chris, and thanks to all of you for tuning in online as well. A reminder to all of you that you can also submit comments and questions. I'm really delighted to be moderating this conversation today and to continue the discussion that we started earlier with speeches by the Secretary of State and Foreign Minister Joly, but also the discussion that just took place. So, this panel will focus on exploring the frameworks and collective responses against arbitrary detention, very much continuing the conversation further.

So, I am delighted to welcome Jason Rezaian, who is a former Washington Post correspondent in Iran, where he was detained for 544 days and released in January of 2016. Jason currently writes for The Washington Post and is also a CNN contributor. Ambassador Louise Blais, who served as Canada's Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York from 2017 until 2021 and is currently a senior business advisor to the Business Council of Canada. And Lara Symons, who as chief executive of Hostage International, has extensive experience in directly assisting families who have been affected by either kidnap or arbitrary detention, and then also supporting former hostages and detainees. And we've heard our previous panelists discuss how important families play, the role they play in all of this and how they're impacted by this. So welcome, and thanks to all of you.

I'd like to kick off the conversation with, basically, you know, the issue of collective response to hostage-taking or hostage diplomacy. I'm reminded by Rachel's statement on the importance of framing, and perhaps that's another conversation to have. But how can collective responses fortify our shared security? And what does that collective response actually look like? Is it led primarily by states, and who are the states that should lead it and participate in it? And Jason, I'd like to start with you. 

Jason Rezaian: Thank you, Marissa, and thank you, everybody, for being here today. As I look around, I see a lot of friends, a lot of former hostages, and people who have worked on my case and others. It reminds me that eight years after my release, we’re growing a very substantial and robust community. For me, where it starts in terms of a collective response is having a clear understanding of what we're talking about. Both in terms of government responses, as the last panelists indicated, and the motivations for different states that engage in this behavior. So, the responses necessarily also need to differ.

Also, it's important how we talk about it publicly when another person is taken. When I was detained ten years ago in Iran, after I returned and read a lot of the statements made by U.S. officials, I was very bothered by how it was characterized. And I think that's a common sentiment shared by many of us. Fortunately, that has changed a lot because of advocacy, but also because of communication and dialogue between us and the stakeholders in government who are tasked with bringing people home. We need to call it what it is. Terms like “arbitrary detention” and “wrongful detention” confuse people; they confuse the public. As someone who writes about these cases on a weekly basis, I know that the average American doesn't care when they hear the term “wrongfully detained” or “arbitrarily detained.” They might assume that person must have done something wrong to get themselves detained. But when you hear the term hostage, you're talking about a whole different thing.

And I'd like to add one more thing: these responses need to be collective and coordinated in the same way the hostage-taking by states is coordinated. In the cases of my friends Haleh and Siamak sitting in the front and Nizar Zakka in the back, everybody can attest to the fact that every aspect of the Iranian state was mobilized against us. Their intelligence gathering services, their law enforcement, their judiciary, their executive branch, their parliament, their state media, propaganda apparatus—everything. We don't have that same coordinated response yet. I feel like we're getting there, but still, this is very much a work in progress. 

Ms. Khurma: Thank you. Jason. Louise, you also were at the helm at the UN when a lot of these discussions were taking place. How do you get more states involved? Because collective response involves getting more people on board. And of course, they have to be part of the declaration. But there was also the operationalization, which we heard earlier in the panel. So what does that look like and who should be leading? 

Louise Blais: Thank you very much, Marissa. I'm really happy to be here. I apologize that I will have to leave at 3:30, but I'll be brief in my remarks because so much has already been said. I think the first panel was absolutely spot on. I couldn't agree more with everything that was discussed. Specifically, to Jon's point about how the world has changed, and how the bad actors are clearly not signing the Declaration and not respecting international law. We already have the necessary framework, legally and otherwise, internationally. However, these bad actors choose to disregard it, and they face very little consequence when they do so. If anything, they're incentivized. So that really limits what can be done and who can lead. I firmly believe that we have to—and this might sound a bit harsh—but I think what we need to do is find a way to remove emotions and bring the focus back to strategic interests.

In terms of the UN, where I have a lot of experience, I believe we should try to get the UN involved in advocating for specific cases. We should remove the state from the equation, but not the families; we can never do that. Instead, we can have a mediator to diffuse the amount of leverage these actors have over the democracies we're talking about. Can we put a middle person and say, "You talk to the hand until we're ready to talk to you"? Is there a way we can be a bit tougher in our response while ensuring the safety of the hostage?

Obviously, this approach must be nuanced and carefully implemented. I also think we need to modernize the instruments we have. The Convention, the hostage convention from 1979, needs updating to reflect the cases we're seeing today.

Even if we know some measures don't work, we should continue to apply pressure. For instance, we could pursue another resolution inside the General Assembly based on the Declaration, condemning this practice. We might even advocate for a special session of the General Assembly against this practice, though it's unlikely that the United States and Canada alone would spearhead this effort. We need to identify allies willing to put some skin in the game without always being at the forefront ourselves. We need to improve our diplomacy and listen more. Many countries around the world, even those that have signed, are tired of being told what to do. We need them on board with our initiatives, and it has to be a two-way street. I'll discuss later how we can involve the business sector in this effort. But that's where I would start: not because shaming doesn't work, but because it does. We must continue to shame bad actors. If we don't, we've abdicated our responsibility. We have found instruments to do that. But behind the scenes, we must toughen up and remove the leverage these actors have over individual countries and leaders, as it can and has influenced elections in the past. It's a tough business, indeed. 

Ms. Khurma: Absolutely. And use the mechanisms that are already there, but also, not be afraid to reform what is needed to reform or create new ones. As we heard, creativity is key to all the tools that are at our disposal. Lara, you had Hostage International, which is an international NGO. You work with the families. How can they be part of the collective response? And how can other NGOs also be part of that collective response, working hand in hand with the states at the forefront of this effort? 

Ms. Symons: Thank you very much. And I extend my gratitude to all our hosts for inviting me to this panel today. The role of the family is critical in this. It was alluded to in the previous panel and by our keynote speakers. The family and the hostage are always at the center of an arbitrary detention or any type of hostage-taking. They are the ones who are paying the biggest price for this. They are the main stakeholders, not only suffering during the initial weeks, months, and unfortunately, years that arbitrary detentions go on for, but also enduring the aftermath.

When a case ends and a hostage comes home, it's the end of that case for everybody else, and they move on to the next matter. For the family and the hostage, there are years of recovery ahead of them. They have to rebuild their lives. They can't return to the lives they had before, and they will carry trauma with them. Both families and hostages experience this trauma and must live with it for years. At Hostage International, we have people coming to us more than 30 years after a hostage-taking event to seek support. That's how deeply the trauma affects them, and we must never forget that.

So, how do we involve families in this? Obviously, the hostage is another matter we can discuss later, and Jason can speak to that. But how do we involve families in a way that will help the overall response? It's by bringing them to the table. They must be partners in this process, not shut out. I think the previous panel alluded to that being very important. So, what do we do? We bring them to the table. They are shared information, not classified information, but relevant information. We've seen this in kidnap cases, where governments are potentially more willing to share because they see it as a security threat rather than solely a consular matter. In many of those cases, governments have involved the family, informing them of the perpetrators’ modus operandi, tactics, and demands. They have presented options to the family and listened to their input. The family doesn't only bring themselves to the table; they have connections they can leverage. There might be employers working on behalf of their employees to secure their release, media contacts, or civil society with valuable information. The family serves as both a stakeholder and someone who can bring a cross-sector approach to the resolution and response. Ultimately, the resolution is carried out by governments in state-to-state arbitrary detentions. However, it's incredibly important to recognize that families have a crucial role to play. In the United States, SPEHA responded to past cases' criticism, where they didn't involve the family, resulting in terrible outcomes. They have taken this feedback on board and now have a response protocol applicable to both non-state and state hostage-takings. This opens up possibilities for a more collective response. 

Ms. Khurma: Thank you for that. And Louise, I know you're mindful you must leave earlier. So, I want to get back to you because you also mentioned, in addition to the role of states, there's also a very important role for the private sector or businesses. Can you elaborate on that?

Ms. Blais: Sure, I'm happy to share my perspective on this. Before delving into the security impact of this practice, it's crucial to address its economic implications. This is where we have leverage, as I mentioned earlier. China, for example, is now overplaying its hand by making it difficult for Western companies to conduct business there, as they are arbitrarily detaining businesspeople on accusations of spying. Highlighting the business impact to those practicing this behavior is important. We need to back our words with action and be prepared for difficult conversations between businesses and governments. When we discuss security issues, they can take various forms, including how companies conduct themselves in a country, which can pose risks. Unfortunately, Canada and the United States have limited tools to prevent our companies from investing in these countries, aside from imposing sanctions, which may not always be feasible. While this may not align with the official stance of the Business Council of Canada, it's worth exploring collaborations between the government and the business sector to enhance our leverage and tools in such situations.

Additionally, I want to highlight an incident from three years ago when I was at the UN We were trying to gather as many signatures as possible for the declaration. On the morning of the announcement, I received panicked calls from ambassadors of different countries before 7 a.m., requesting to remove their names from the declaration. This shows the pressure some countries face to refrain from signing. Although we may not have achieved getting their names on the declaration, we forced these countries to reveal their true intentions. Every time we compel these bad actors to use their influence, they have less to wield elsewhere. So, even if it seems like those directly involved are not signing, we're still making them pay a price and forcing the issue, which is crucial to continue doing. 

Ms. Khurma: Speaking of tools at our disposal, Louise mentioned businesses in the private sector. Jason, what other tools are there that can be mobilized to ensure that the collective response is more fortified? 

Mr. Rezaian: I think there are quite a few options available to us. Firstly, we have the Global Magnitsky sanctions, which can be activated. However, for various reasons, governments have been reluctant to use them in wrongful detention cases so far.

Here in the United States, we have our legal system. Some of you may know that I and others have obtained massive judgments against the Islamic Republic of Iran. However, these judgments are essentially just pieces of paper that our justice system has decided not to leverage against Iran. These judgments usually take the form of punitive damages, designed to punish. We need to become much more comfortable with imposing real costs for this behavior. A conversation that I've had often with many people in this room is that there is currently no real cost. I wholeheartedly agree with my dear friend Rachel that we must do everything we can to bring individuals home. Sometimes, this may involve concessions that we don't feel comfortable with. However, at the same time, we need to consider how we can make this behavior harder in the future. We need to get very creative.

Another idea that some of us have discussed is involving the business community. One of the previous panelists mentioned the D-designation that the State Department has for countries that engage in wrongful detention. What about implementing an airline tax for those countries? Millions of people travel to China and Iran every year. Increasing the cost of a ticket to one of these countries, perhaps even doubling it, could deter some people from going. And reducing foreign currency income to countries like Iran would have a significant impact. So, it requires thinking outside the box and expanding the toolkit available to us. 

Ms. Khurma: And Lara, what does that look like from your perspective, given the work that you do so closely with families? What are some of the ideas that have come about to just expand that toolbox?

Ms. Symons: Well, from my perspective, and considering the position of families, I believe the biggest hurdle or challenge to a collective response is the lack of clear criteria for designating arbitrary detention by individual governments. This applies at both the national and international levels. Families face a situation where their loved one is detained under dubious circumstances, and they expect their government to have clear assessment rules for determining whether it constitutes arbitrary detention and what response should follow. Unfortunately, this clarity is lacking almost everywhere. The U.S. is an exception with the Levinson Act, which provides clear criteria for Americans to determine if a detention is wrongful and outlines the subsequent actions. However, this isn't the case for many families in other countries.

So, what options do they have? One tool available to them is petitioning the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions. While the UN Working Group doesn't have a specific category for state hostage takings, it can rule on whether a detention is arbitrary, meaning it contravenes international law. When a family receives this legal ruling from the UN, it's incredibly powerful. It validates their position and that of the hostage, stating that the detention is wrong and illegal. Unfortunately, this is an underutilized tool by governments. Many governments leave it to the families to pursue while they continue their strategy of dealing with the detaining state. However, governments should recognize and utilize these UN rulings more effectively. While like-minded countries may not always adhere to one nation's criteria for assessing arbitrary detention, they should accept the ruling of the UN, an independent body, stating that detention is arbitrary. This could then prompt a collective response, with states calling out the detaining state based on the UN's determination.

Another aspect to consider is protecting the hostages themselves and ensuring a better response at that level. In many arbitrary detention cases, the hostage does not receive consular visits, which is unacceptable. Especially where the UN has declared the detention arbitrary, the hostage must have access to consular support because something is amiss with that detention. The hostage also needs to be informed because without access to information, the detaining state can control the narrative, leaving the hostage vulnerable to coercion and manipulation. 

Ms. Khurma: Which we know happens in almost all the cases. 

Ms. Symons: They are vulnerable to that. And if they do that, that also hampers the response of their homes, their home country. So, it's not in the interests of anyone, least of all the hostages, but also the state negotiating the release for there not to be consular access. Now the Vienna Conventions on Consular Relations give every state that right to have consular access and to seek legal representation for their national, and the UN determination on arbitrary detention can be used as a tool to get other states to call out the detaining state for not allowing the national state to have that access. It should be done. 

Ms. Khurma: Jason?

Mr. Rezaian: I just wanted to add something. I think those arbitrary detention designations by the United Nations are really important and underutilized. They highlight a serial trend that is happening in many of these countries. You can see from cases like Siamak’s, Nizar’s, and mine, the same individuals involved repeatedly. This creates a body of evidence to work with. I also wanted to throw out an idea for the signers of the declaration. Maybe a guarantee of consular access to anybody imprisoned in one of the signing countries to all the other signers could be an easy and initial step to commit to addressing this issue. Consular access is critical in these cases, and many of us have been denied it. Seeing other countries sign on to this commitment would be significant. The last thing I wanted to mention is that at the event at the UN back in September, I was approached by a foreign minister of one of the signing countries who said to me, “I deal with this on a regular basis with a neighboring country of mine, and I never thought about it in this framework.” This is a country that has actually signed on to the declaration. So, there's an aspect of education with like-minded countries who may perceive this as a problem only bigger, more powerful countries deal with. However, once you break it down, you realize that this is a widespread issue. 

Ms. Khurma: Thank you for that, Jason. And, Louise, given that those tools are available but are underutilized and your experience of the UN, why do you think they are underutilized. I mean, is it an awareness problem? Is it just a sort of unwillingness to take that step? 

Ms. Blaise: That's a good question, and I'm not sure I have the answer to it. I would be speculating. I think sometimes we get set in our ways and the way we conduct diplomacy and what our priorities are. It's interesting to note that we often direct families to the UN to seek designation when the state could do it themselves. Personally, I haven't worked directly on such cases, so I don't know the reasoning behind this underutilization. But it's definitely an area that is underutilized. Then there are areas that are ineffective. For instance, we talked about the UN Security Council, where resolutions condemning specific cases have gone unanswered and unresolved.

Additionally, there are new approaches that we could be exploring but aren't. For example, at the UN, we have groups of friends on various topics, but I'm not aware of one specifically focused on this issue. These groups are informal gatherings of ambassadors exchanging best practices and fostering dialogue. While some may argue that there are too many of these groups at the UN, they can be effective in building momentum and keeping issues at the forefront. During my time at the UN, Canada initiated a group of friends on Innovating Financing, which was highly effective in advancing the conversation and maintaining focus on the issue. While the UN General Assembly is crucial, it meets only once a year. Therefore, these informal groups provide an opportunity to continue the dialogue and work on the issue throughout the year.

Ms. Khurma: And that goes back to Jason's point about just education. And it's raising awareness. 

Ms. Blaise: Exactly right. Having ongoing efforts is crucial because people circulate in and out of the UN, and alliances are built over time. It's essential to keep engaging and advocating continuously. I'm in touch with our embassy there, and I couldn't be happier with the person leading this effort for Canada. I'm really proud of our representation. So, I would suggest that we need to continue being persistent and proactive, ensuring that this issue remains at the forefront. Additionally, the education piece is vital. By bringing in unexpected allies who see their interests aligned with ours, we can broaden our support base and strengthen our advocacy efforts. It's about being persistent and strategic in our approach.

Ms. Khurma: So you mentioned something, Louise, that I'm going to go back and ask you about Jason, which is sometimes it's not a priority for states. And this is part of the discussion. Like when does it become a priority, and how do you make it a priority? 

Mr. Rezaian: Well, it often becomes a priority when it becomes politically costly for it not to be a priority. There's a certain adversarial relationship that develops between a family, an employer, or someone dealing with this situation publicly, and the state they're trying to compel to bring a person home.

I knew very well that the Islamic Republic of Iran was holding me, but ultimately, it would be the decision of the president of the United States, whoever that might be, that would bring me home. I believe my friends here who've been in similar situations understand this feeling as well. It's a delicate balance that needs to be maintained. Roger and his team are incredibly skilled at managing these conflicting dynamics. They understand that families will do whatever they need to do, but it won't change how they do their job. I've personally spoken with him on several cases, and he's always had this approach. I believe his predecessors in this position held the same attitude. I've witnessed how my news organization, along with others, advocated for individuals like Evan Gershkovich from The Wall Street Journal and Brittney Griner from the NBA and WNBA. This advocacy makes a significant difference. Furthermore, the number of friends and allies of this issue in the United States has increased over the last decade. We've had at least 20 states where constituents have been taken hostage by foreign governments. Consequently, there are now dozens of members of Congress and Senators who've had to confront this issue firsthand. In our work at CSIS, we aim to highlight this as a nonpartisan issue, possibly the last nonpartisan issue, and it's crucial to keep it in that realm. Ultimately, individuals don't come home until there's a political cost to not bringing them home. 

Ms. Khurma: Lara, do you want to comment on this from the perspective of families? This is the most important priority for them, and how do you have that conversation when the states may talk about it, but may or may not act on it as a priority? 

Ms. Symons: I mean, for families, they need to get in front of their governments. And that's again about having the right person they feel is prioritizing this. For many states that don't have a figure such as SPEHA or SOHA in Canada, citizens are frustrated by dealing with the civil servants day-to-day who are coming and going and who don't have the institutional knowledge behind this. There's often a lack of handovers between government personnel who are dealing with the matter. And I've been in meetings with families where they've said, "But you've just contradicted what your colleague told me at the last meeting.” And that takes away any reassurance that the government is prioritizing this and doing their best to bring the loved one home.

So, it’s really important for families to know that this is that there's someone accountable, senior level, who is taking the lead and that's why we get so many requests in countries where there isn't a SPEHA for, you know, “Can we see the foreign minister, can we see the Prime Minister?” They want to have that face-to-face meeting with the person that they think can call the shots, and until they do, they are not satisfied. So, I think following the lead of what the United States has done with SPEHA, I think is a good idea because it will help families feel that they are being given the attention it deserves. I think that's a starting point, getting collective action behind that. Yes. I mean, I've been in meetings where families have said to the government personnel, “So you don't have the answer to that question, but have you asked your allies? Have you asked your other governments who maybe have had this experience that you haven't had?” You see them grabbing their pens and scribbling, that they’ll take that away. So, I think, yeah, why haven't they done that? You know, that should have been happening at the outset because at the end of the day, if every government has partners that they can use that information for a lot of the time, it's not classified information at all. It's simply information that might be out there to the public. But it's also about best practice and what works. So, I think it's not that having a better response. Collective action partnerships with other states and other sectors of society, and having the right people in the government role would be the place to start. 

Ms. Khurma: And I mean, we've talked about this, already, you know, the role of the United Nations, the role of other multilateral organizations, the role of civil society, but specifically in addressing this as a security threat - you know, Jason, you talked about elevating the cost. What role do all these players play? In not just furthering the discussions, but strengthening the mechanisms available? What does it take?

Mr. Rezaian: I think we're still figuring out what it's going to take, right? And I feel like we're a lot closer to it today than we were 4 or 5 years ago, but we're still a long way away. When President Biden declared the national emergency a year and a half ago, I felt as though, okay, this is an issue that has caught their attention. It's no longer seen as one-off cases done by bad actors. This is part of a trend, and not a trend just in one country, but a trend in several countries and a series of countries that's expanding.

And so there is this recognition and this acknowledgment that this is spiraling out of our control. And, you know, when we put numbers on it at the time, I was arrested, you know, I think there were probably 3 or 4 people arbitrarily detained or wrongfully detained. There wasn't a specific designation for that at the time. There were many more people who were being held hostage by terrorists or criminal organizations. The numbers have flip-flopped, you know, to foreign states being the main perpetrator in these cases. Sixty-something people, I think the Secretary said, are still on the list. What if that number grows to 600 people? You know, is the State Department going to be able to deploy resources to handle that? And if the U.S. government decides under whatever administration happens to be in power, that they aren't going to deploy those kinds of resources, what does it mean to our ability to travel the world? What does it mean to know our ability to do business in other countries? What does it mean for the essence of what it means to be a citizen of this country and any other country that is a democracy? And I think that's how we have to be thinking about this in the very short term, medium term and long term, because it is a threat to the very idea of being a citizen of a democratic country. 

Ms. Khurma: And, Louise, I know you have to leave us, but I want to give you the floor for any final remarks you want to add to all the excellent points you already made. 

Ms. Blais: Oh, thank you. I don't want to take any more time. I think all the important things have been said, and I hope that there was this was helpful for those who deal with this every day that have to find the solutions. I think I want to just congratulate everyone that's been involved, Chris for being such a great partner with Canada through the years, the Wilson Center has been my honor to be here and share a little bit of my experience and have such great panelists to do it with. So, I will grab my bag and go. And I hate to do that, but I do have to catch that flight. 

Ms. Khurma: So thank you for being with us today. Thank you. We do have time for maybe 1 or 2 questions, and I have one here from our online audience. Erin, from the Institute of World Politics: how can governments be more proactive and dry up the supply of potential hostages? It appears that the U.S. State Department travel warnings aren't being read or heeded.

Mr. Rezaian: I mean, I don't think that. I've talked to people in government over the last several years about the idea of putting travel bans on specific countries. I don't think that anybody has decided that that is a particularly useful idea or practical one. In a country like Iran, at any given time, there are tens of thousands - I think the last count is about 13,000 - U.S. citizens, dual nationals who've registered as residing in Iran. So that's the number of people that have held their hand up and said that they’re here. You assume that the number is double, triple that. So, you know, drying up the number of possible hostages in these countries is a harder task, I think, than doing the hard work of figuring out how to make it less interesting, to the perpetrators who are doing it. 

Ms. Symons: I think on the subject of travel bans, I mean, a lot of the cases that we're supporting are in arbitrary detention are dual nationals, and any travel ban will be harmful to them, the people who are most at risk. So they have family. A lot of these people are taken when they've gone to say goodbye to loved ones who are on their deathbed, and to deprive them of that is almost as bad as, you know, exposing them to arbitrary detention. So it's not the solution. A travel ban. What could be better is borrowing tips, maybe from the private sector, about what information should be given to travelers. You know, when employees are sent out by a company to a high-risk state, there is a risk assessment there, you know, the routines are looked at where they're going to be staying, what they're going to be doing, the type of work they're going to be doing. And that plays into how they can mitigate the risk of being either kidnapped or detained arbitrarily. So I think there are other ways to be creative, again, we have to be creative in terms of deterrence as well as response. There are other things that can be done that governments can be proactive in changing the travel advice in a way that is more helpful and does not punish those most at risk.

Ms. Khurma: Thank you for highlighting once again the important role that the private sector plays not only with economic leverage, but also—just as you mentioned—the tips and that conversation that you have with the private sector. One more question. This is to you, Jason, but I'm sure, Lara, you can also maybe add to it. What are some examples of acceptable concessions that you had referred to? 

Mr. Rezaian: I think that the truth is that, as far as I'm concerned, bringing fellow citizens home as quickly and safely as possible is going to require all sorts of flexibility in concession making. In some of the cases that we've seen, it's been one-on-one trades, there's been sanctions lifted, there's been money changing hands. There's been presidential tweets. I mean, there's been all sorts of stuff that's happened. I don't want to put a number on it. You know, to me, it's bring these people home as quickly, as safely as possible, and at the same time, put in the resources, energy, and time to figure out how to make it costlier and how to punish on the back end of these cases, which, you know, I believe that that process is ongoing. But we need an action plan. We need tools to use, and we need it pretty soon. And some of these countries that do this need to feel the hurt in a very public way. One of the things that didn't come up on the last panel about the tools, I think it needs to be made public and clear. This is the cost of doing this particular activity.

Ms. Khurma: So shaming. But then we've also heard a previous panelist talk about living in a shameless sort of or increasingly shameless culture. 

Mr. Rezaian: Not just shame—expense.

Ms. Khurma: Expense. Making it hurt, like you said. Lara, anything you want to add here from a perspective of, you know, working with the families and the victims? 

Ms. Symons: I mean, going back to what the first panel said, and Rachel mentioned this, that, you know, the families will pay anything to get the loved ones home and do anything. So, what concessions are acceptable? Any in their view. I mean, that, you know, ultimately that is how the families will approach this. And that's also why they're looking at every option open to them. They're looking at, shall I go to the media and make this a really public case? Shall I go on a hunger strike? They will, and we've seen them do it. They will do anything. So, I think states have to take into account that that is the family position.

I think probably just to wind up on the whole issue of this being a security threat, and what that might look like for fortifying shared security, I would look at the example of kidnap for ransom where you have—and this is my experience from the private sector speaking here—where you have cases where the states are leading and, where the private sector is leading. What does collective action, what does collective response look like? We have a situation where in kidnapping, which anybody can be kidnapped and many are sometimes they're taking individually, but when they're taken in groups of multinationals and the state is leading on the response, have we ever seen collective action, collective response? No. Every state has its own policy that it implements, concessions or otherwise, and its own approach.

And what's the result been? The result has been that some of those hostages have come home based on their nationality and some have not. And for families sitting, waiting for the loved one to go home, those who don't. Absolute devastation and anger. Real anger. So what does the private sector tell us about this? Well, when I was in the private sector, I saw cases of multiple victims being taken, multiple hostages, different nationalities and crucially, different organizations that they were working for. And the private sector response was, well, first of all, the kidnappers would say, “We're going to divide you up into groups.” So they wanted to negotiate separately with each organization. Private sector responses don't let them do that. We have to act together. This group of people, whatever their nationality, whatever whoever they were working for, they have got to come out together. And the family member would say, “Oh, but what if there's an opportunity to get my loved one out first.? I don't want to lose that.” And the response from the advisers was, “What if another family member said that and that left your loved one behind? And then you were stuck?” and they said, “Oh no, that's right. We need to do this together.” And so what they did was bring all the organizations who had employees caught up in the same situation and got them to agree on a joint strategy, collective response to a security threat, joint strategy to get them out. And guess what? They got them all out together. So, I think that is maybe a takeaway that we can, we can learn from other sectors on how to respond to this crime, either kidnapping arbitrary detention. I see them as, you know, something that you can compare. And I think that's possibly what we can learn from. 

Ms. Khurma: Thank you for that. So, we’re nearing the end. We want to make sure that there's enough time for networking and sharing more contacts and information. But thank you so much, to both of you for sharing your expertise, and your lived experience, as well, just a few points just to sort of remind us of some of the takeaways from today. We've heard this from Foreign Minister Joly as well as Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, that the practice of arbitrary detention, which is very often used for diplomatic leverage, is an important international security concern. And as we've seen and heard, from Jason and others, I'm very lucky to be mentored daily, almost by Haleh as the founder of the Middle East program. And heard her story that, this presents a very serious challenge to the international security system, as well as the international rules-based order that offers different norms to deal with, but unfortunately, it's not always respected by the various actors. And the key is to engage many stakeholders, from the families to the private sector, to the various bodies that are already in place, such as the United Nations, as well as civil society and international NGOs.

Of course, there's a lot more to do about this. The conversation is continuing, and we look forward to more discussions. But going back to some of the earlier remarks from the previous panel, it's about investing in data and research, to make sure that we have a lot more information. Information sharing and sharing of best practices and lessons learned is key to further strengthening all the different tools and ensuring that we have more tools at our disposal in the future. And as you know, going back to your point, Jason, to make it very costly for this to happen and so strengthen deterrence. So, thank you for all of you for being here in person and for our online audience. Thanks to CSIS, to Canada's Global Affairs and the State Department for all the work. And thanks to my dear colleague Chris Sands, for his leadership on this very important issue at the Wilson Center. Thank you.