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Abductor states are weaponising citizenship of British nationals for geopolitical ends

4 April 2023

Today the Foreign Affairs Committee publishes its report “Stolen years: combatting state hostage diplomacy”.

The report calls for a “zero tolerance approach” to cases of state hostage taking and arbitrary detention. State hostage taking poses a growing challenge for the Government, as hostile states resort to abduction and exploitation of British nationals to achieve their geopolitical ambitions and neuter the ability of rules-based order abiding countries to act.

The report finds that the Government has failed to learn lessons in responding to state hostage taking and has often been too slow – or entirely unwilling – to call out countries guilty of state hostage taking.

Communicating and working with families

The Committee cites a number of examples in concluding that “ministerial communication has been plagued by inconsistency and clumsiness,” both in Parliament and with affected families.

The report calls for families to be treated as partners who have the potential to be instrumental in the attempts to resolve the detentions, rather than inconveniences.

Families are frequently assured by officials and ministers that they are “doing all they can”, which the Committee considers an inadequate response. To present standard diplomatic representations as substantive actions to families of detainees with little or no further detail is not conducive to a constructive and supportive working partnership.

The report concludes that little progress has been made by Government in improving communication with families, despite a report in 2019 recommending improvements the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) could introduce. The Committee recommends that briefings with families should be frequent, and for the families of any vulnerable or arbitrary detainee, communication should be led by a senior manager or minister in the FCDO. Overall, ministers must take more personal responsibility in the cases of those arbitrarily detained abroad.

The Committee also calls for resourcing for ongoing psychological support for victims of state hostage taking, regular follow up meetings and improved coordination between the FCDO and Home Office.

Quiet diplomacy or “going public”

The report finds that, other than in the initial phases of a detention – before formal charges (legitimate or not) are laid, the FCDO’s presumption that family silence is always appropriate is false.

It argues that families should never be left to feel that the only way the Government will prioritise their case is by acting against advice and, in some cases, their better judgement, by going to the media and to Parliament.

The report recommends awareness plans be created with families by the FCDO. The Committee urges the Government to have frank, detailed and regular conversations with families on the likely impacts of “going public”, and advise and support on how to proceed in the safest way possible.

Director of Arbitrary and Complex Detentions

The Committee calls for the creation of a new high-level role of “Director for Arbitrary and Complex Detentions (DACD)” with a “direct line to the Prime Minister”.

This post should have a mandate that includes coordinating the response to certain cases, providing a point of contact for families, convening a cross-government response, and coordinating the UK’s response to the multilateral efforts to address state hostage taking and arbitrary detention with a relentless focus on them. It is quite evident that the current model of ministers taking responsibility for those arbitrarily detained in their siloed geographies prevents a holistic overview of how best to tackle state hostage taking.

Learning lessons

The report concludes that the failure to pay the IMS debt to Iran sooner is highly regrettable and almost certainly adversely affected the length of detentions of UK nationals.

The report also calls for a review of Diplomatic Protection in cases of arbitrary detention, the use of which has previously been “ill thought through and poorly implemented”, as well as meaningful engagement with families following a period of resettlement to learn from hostages and their families.

Chair comment

Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Alicia Kearns MP, said:

“Abductor states weaponise the citizenship of British nationals to achieve their geopolitical goals: this is both illegal and heinous.

“While those wrongly detained face attempts to break their physical and mental health, the lives of their loved ones back in the UK are devastated.

“The Government’s approach to state-level hostage taking is failing British citizens. Detainees and their families report ministerial clumsiness, serious and avoidable errors, and even callous and hurtful comments to families.

“Our report calls for families to be treated as partners who have the potential to be instrumental in attempts to resolve the detentions – they should not be viewed as adversaries or inconveniences.

“Today we recommend the creation of a Director of Arbitrary and Complex Detentions to act as an advocate for detainees and their families. This will add much needed cohesion, continuity and authority where it is currently lacking, overcoming the current failure to have a central expert on resolving these heinous cases.

“When working to bring our people home, time is truly of the essence. Swift and effective diplomacy can prevent a prolonged, painful and often dangerous detention. No action should be off the table and today’s report encourages the Government to be more bold in the measures used, including sanctions and legal proceedings.

“State hostage taking is a part of a wider erosion of the rules-based international order. One in which abductor states adopt the tactics of terrorists to achieve their aims and castrate other Governments from taking action against their most egregious acts. The UK has strong diplomatic networks and is in a prime position to lead the international community in combatting state hostage taking.”

Further information

Image credit: UK Parliament/Tyler Allicock