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MODULE: ABDUCTION AND HOSTAGE Abduction and Hostage Taking 5 is the abduction, torture and assassination of NGO staff and social activists by right wing death squads in Central America

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  • MODULE: ABDUCTION AND HOSTAGE TAKING By Koenraad van Brabant; Overseas Development Institute, Portland House, Stag Place,

    London SW1E 5DP, UK; +44-171-393-1674; fax: +44-171-393-1699; e-mail:

    [email protected]

    GOAL: To outline key aspects of a comprehensive agency approach towards

    abduction and hostage taking.

    OBJECTIVE: This module will enable participants to

    • identify three measures to reduce vulnerability to abduction/hostage taking;

    • identify five measures to increase preparedness for abduction/hostage taking;

    • list three possible actors to lead negotiations, and discuss their relative


    • identify four key personal characteristics of a good negotiator;

    • describe the general direction of a negotiation strategy;

    • describe and comment on the dual aspect of a siege strategy;

    • state the priority upon the return of an abducted person;

    • argue an approach to the family and relatives of an abducted person; and

    • identify two risks of high press exposure.

  • Abduction and Hostage Taking



    a. Aid workers get abducted for a variety of motives, ranging from grievances over

    aid programs, to politics, criminality and terror. Different situations may require

    different approaches, but sometimes the motives will be mixed, may change or

    will be unknown.

    b. A frequent approach to reduce the risk level of abduction/hostage taking is the

    adoption of protective measures. Vulnerability can be reduced through reducing

    exposure, controlling movements, increasing numbers and surveillance


    c. Organizations can improve their preparedness to abduction/hostage taking

    through various measures: improved risk assessment, establishing contacts

    with potential allies and clarifying terms of cooperation, policy development,

    better staff preparation and increased organizational capacity.

    d. The lead in negotiations can be taken by various actors: the agency itself, local

    people, the national authorities, governmental or private special negotiation

    teams or another aid agency. Each has strengths and weaknesses.

    e. The aid agency should consider who might be the best placed negotiator, but

    should argue that, on the grounds that it retains the ultimate responsibility for

    the safety and well-being of its staff, it should remain closely involved in the

    negotiations conducted by third parties. This is to ensure that the safety of the

    abductee both is and remains the primary criterion and concern.

    f. Beware of and avoid conflicting strategies by different actors, parallel and

    potentially-conflicting channels of communication with the captors and

    conflicting messages reaching the captors.

    g. Intermediaries acting as a channel of communication for the agency should be

    very clear that they cannot commit the agency to any action without prior and

    explicit approval.

    h. A basic negotiation strategy seeks to stabilize the situation, establish rapport

    and create a climate of problem-solving through compromise.

    i. A rescue operation with or without siege involves high risk for the abducted. A

    siege situation is an approach whereby persuasive dialogue and the threat of

    the use of force need to be finely balanced and coordinated. Failure to do so can

    lead to catastrophe.

    j. The physical and mental needs of a person released from captivity take priority

    over any other demands.

    k. Close interaction with the family and relatives of the abducted is required to

    establish and retain a constructive relationship of trust and mutual support.

    l. An active press strategy is better than a passive one or none. Intensive press

    coverage can be useful under certain circumstances. Often, however,

    discreteness and confidentiality are essential.

  • Abduction and Hostage Taking




    1. Risk Areas

    Aid agency staff appear to be increasingly exposed to abduction. In some

    situations they may get specifically targeted. In other situations wealthy people,

    including "foreigners" may generally be at risk.

    Some areas of current high risk are the northern Caucasus, Tajikistan, Somalia,

    Sierra Leone, Colombia and Yemen. Better interagency security monitoring, as

    being piloted for example by the Humanitarian Security Network project (under the

    umbrella of VOICE in Brussels), could be a mechanism for ongoing risk

    assessment of countries and regions.

    2. Motives for Abduction and/or Hostage Taking

    Abduction of aid personnel takes place for a variety of motives, and the

    management of the incident will vary according to the "logic" of the abduction.

    • In the course of circumstance and for no clear purpose, aid workers may be

    taken "hostage" or restricted in their freedom of movement. In such an instance,

    no specific demands are made and there does not appear to be a clear reason.

    The aid workers may simply be told that their perceived "abduction" is for their

    own security.

    Some years ago, four aid workers were "kidnapped" by a small group of soldiers of the Sudanese

    People's Liberation Army (SPLA). The motive given was to ensure their own safety in the face of an

    imminent attack in the area. The four were eventually released seven weeks later, close to the

    Kenyan border, after having trekked over 175 miles through the bush with their captors.

    During the civil war in Sierra Leone, two Red Cross workers on a field trip to a provincial town found

    themselves under the control of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), when after a short exchange

    of fire they took the town. Subsequently, they were prevented from returning to their main office by

    the RUF who stated that crossing the lines was too dangerous. RUF officers referred them to higher

    levels of command, which took them deeper into RUF-controlled territory. Altogether they stayed

    under RUF control for five weeks. The rebels insisted that they did not hold them against their will,

    but restricted their movements for their own safety. No demands were made, and the Red Cross

    workers noticed that the rebels stopped taking interest in their presence. One day they simply

    started walking, and talked themselves through RUF checkposts, until, after 27 miles, they reached

    a village controlled by government troops.

  • Abduction and Hostage Taking


    • It is not unusual for aid workers to be abducted or temporarily detained,

    sometimes as "reluctant guests," to signal a complaint about the aid work. This

    can be a grievance over perceived neglect of a certain group or area, over

    perceived empty promises or a perceived breach of the project agreement. The

    abduction or "hostage" taking is then a mechanism to force the aid agencies to

    pay attention to these grievances. A variation on this theme is the abduction of

    an aid worker by a former employee or contractor who wants to express a

    grievance or obtain revenge.

    In the mid-1990s, an aid worker stayed hostage for 37 days in Somalia. He had been kidnapped at

    gunpoint on his way to Mogadishu airport and a ransom was demanded. It transpired that the

    kidnapping had been arranged by a businessperson from whom the agency had been renting cars.

    Scaling down its operation, the agency had prematurely terminated the contract. It transpired that

    the kidnapping was not only motivated by financial motives, but also by a desire to save face and

    restore or increase the businessperson's social standing.

    In the early 1990s, an international aid agency was working in a province in Cambodia. Their

    largest program was one of well-drilling, which they also carried out on the fluctuating "borderline"

    between Khmer Rouge- and government-controlled areas. While the UN Transitional Authority in

    Cambodia was still been present, another international organization apparently had had contact

    with the local Khmer Rouge group and talked about wells, a school and a clinic. Subsequently,

    however, they withdrew from the area without informing the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge then

    captured a well-drilling team of more than 10 local staff of the first agency; resentful over the

    "broken promise," they had confused the two agencies. They kept the vehicle and driver and

    demanded to speak to a foreigner or they would kill the driver. The one foreigner of the agency in

    the area went. She was not aware of any foreigners targeted or killed by the Khmer Rouge at the

    time, and felt she could not play guessing games with the life of the driver at risk. She and two staff

    members were kept under Khmer Rouge control until negotiations secured their release, six weeks


    • Aid workers can get abducted for political or ideological motives. This may be

    because of the international political position of the home country of the aid

    agency or the particular staff member. It may also be because of the perceived

    bias and partiality of the aid agency in a co

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