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The Kidnapping Business - Launch event speech

By Rachel Briggs.

The following text is the speech delivered by Rachel Briggs, report author, at the event to mark the launch of the report.

The Kidnapping Business – Rachel Briggs

Thank you James for that introduction.

Before I launch into this, just a bit of background. This report is the culmination of an 18-month research project at the Centre. But my connection with the issue goes slightly further back in time to 1996 when I experienced the problem first or maybe second hand when a family member was kidnapped in Colombia.

Kidnapping is an interesting challenge. As more of us travel overseas each year, for work or pleasure, so the risk of Britons being kidnapped grows, too. But while kidnapping is a terrible personal tragedy for those directly involved in an individual case, the crime also poses a number of policy dilemmas. It's a policy that traditionally lies at the FCO, but as companies and charity workers are increasingly targeted, so they and the DTI and DFID must also have a role to play – I think that's what they call joined-up government. It also highlights the important interface between hard abstract security threats and their impact on ordinary people.

So many of these dilemmas have resonance in other areas of global security policy. So if we can find a way of tackling kidnapping it could have far-reaching implications for the security community as a whole.

Let's be clear that the problem facing countries themselves where kidnapping takes place is far greater than the problem that faces the UK. 90% of hostages in the majority of hot-spot countries are locals – not foreigners. Domestic populations suffer both directly and indirectly from the impacts of kidnapping. And kidnapping is a symptom of much deeper underlying problems, which in themselves exacerbate the consequences of kidnapping for domestic populations.

This report doesn't attempt to provide a magic bullet solution for kidnapping. There isn't one. It accepts that the only long-term solution to the problem is in tackling its underlying causes. In this respect, the UK has an important role to play in supporting the excellent work being carried out by countries where kidnapping is a problem, and should ensure that the behaviour of UK actors in no way compromises this.

Rather, this report is an attempt to take a bite-sized, manageable part of the problem where the UK can have an immediate impact and get that right while we start the long hard process of tackling the causes of kidnapping head on.

This report seeks to move the debate about kidnapping policy forward and identify areas where progress can be made. It sets out detailed policy recommendations aimed at all the affected groups – government, business and charities. Any feedback on these recommendations would be gratefully received – either during this session or individually.

I hope that in the remaining five points I can outline some of the main arguments of the report and show that while kidnapping is a difficult policy issue, it is not impossible to tackle.

First, kidnapping is a business.

In this business, the hostage is a commodity with a price on his head, and kidnappers make rational decisions in weighing up the risks they face against the rewards on offer. If we as policy makers understand this balance, it is possible to work out what we can do to make kidnapping a less profitable activity.

When we understand kidnapping in this way, it is not surprising that engineers are just as attractive as their CEO's or that aid workers are kidnapped alongside diplomatic staff. Kidnappers sensibly and carefully select their targets to expose themselves to the minimum amount of risk possible in carrying out the crime.

It is difficult to know which came first, the transformation of kidnapping into a business or the growth of British exposure through ever greater overseas travel. And actually, this doesn't particularly matter. What is important is that we accept that the latter will continue to grow, so this is an issue that we must face now.

Second, we have a policy vacuum

While it's interesting that we're all potential targets now, what's more important – and what makes it essential for us to look again at kidnapping policy is – this. Because ransoms are financial in economic kidnapping, anyone with the money to pay can resolve a case and therefore can create their own bit of policy.

The current framework can't cope with this development. It challenges the traditional key role played by government – but there is no alternative in place. There is no framework that can cope with the influx of new actors. While the government is able to maintain its firm stance of non-concessions in cases where it controls the negotiations, it cannot force others to comply.

In the absence of such structures, a policy vacuum has resulted. It is important to work out what should fill this gap – not only so that policy can be coherent, but also so that we can tap the many pockets of excellence that have ironically been created as a result of the vacuum – in both the business and charity sectors.

Third, in order to get out of the vacuum, we need to find a new focus for policy to tackle economic kidnapping

The current focus for policy is on how individual cases are resolved – and this inevitably comes down to the age-old question: to pay or not to pay.

Where one group, say national governments, is able to control this policy there is some hope that it could deliver the shared objective of reducing kidnapping. In cases where anyone can take control, this consistency is difficult to achieve. While reducing ransom payments must always be an aim and is a long-term goal set out in the report, we must accept that this alone can no longer deliver the objectives we want to achieve. Whether we like it or not.

We need a new focus for kidnapping policy that can bring results in the short-term while such important long-term policies are being pursued.

We should focus on reducing the opportunities for kidnapping, not through stopping people from travelling to areas where there are risk, but through enabling them to manage their risks more effectively. This is an area of policy where there is much potential for success.

Step one of this new opportunities-based focus must be in ensuring that we all have reliable and accurate information from which we can measure our own risks and those of the people for whom we are responsible. It must be delivered to us through the right mediums and must be presented in a format that is appropriate for the way we want to digest it, and to an adequate level of detail. A backpacker in the Thai jungle might need more in-depth information than a businessman on a stop-over in Bangkok, but an oil worker in Colombia would need far more information than a sunbather on a Mexican beach. That's why I recommend a review of the whole travel advice sector: this is an opportunity firstly to audit the skills we have and then also to make sure that all the needs of the different groups are being met somewhere.

Fourth, we must define the boundaries of responsibility

If this new focus for policy is to be effective, we must also ensure that there is a clear definition of responsibility for the safety and security of UK citizens overseas. What are the responsibilities of my employer when I'm working in Bogota and how do these differ from when I'm based in Swindon? Are the responsibilities of companies different from those of charities in managing the risks of their employees? How do we define reasonable versus unreasonable risk? it might be reasonable to expect a charity worker to deliver humanitarian aid in a war zone, but is it reasonable to expect them to do it without issuing them with a bullet-proof vest? What are these standards and how can we measure them?

I suggest that in the same way that we have a domestic HSE to define these risks and to define what it is reasonable to expect employers to do to mitigate them in the UK, we need such guidelines to cover Brits working overseas. Initially voluntary and organic, these guidelines should define the risks of working abroad and develop the notion of best practice in the international arena that we have at home.

However, not only is it right that employers take seriously their responsibilities to their employees it is also right that they are not held accountable for factors that are beyond their control. As the UK moves further towards the litigious model of the US, it is right for employers to expect some protection against such cases.

And while we should expect an employer to fulfil certain responsibilities, it is also important to define where personal responsibility should kick in.

Fifth, we need the structures in place that allow the different types of people affected by kidnapping to work together

Kidnapping does not distinguish between different groups and neither should policy. Each group must be involved in the policy making process. Each has unique skills that others could benefit from: charities are expert at operating unobtrusively and blending in with local communities to reduce their exposure to risk; companies are expert at managing resources effectively and have developed innovative security services in recent years; and governments have the unique characteristic of being able to balance the interests of individual groups against the public interest.

It is also sensible that we ensure that each new bit of knowledge and each new piece of experience builds on a critical mass rather than remaining hidden and untapped within individual sectors. I suggest the establishment of a Security Network. This would not only look at kidnapping, but other security risks, too. It would be a collaborative organisation run through an executive council made up of representatives from government, business and the voluntary sector. It is vital though, that it also involves representatives from countries directly affected by kidnapping and the other security risks the Network would address. There are many more details in the report, but essentially it would seek to create a critical mass of thinking and expertise in the area of security and the nearest similar example is the OSAC in the US.

As well as this initiative in London, it is also vital that work is carried out on the ground too. Embassies are invariably the most permanent UK presence in hot-spot countries and I recommend that each appoints a named member of staff with responsibility for security issues for UK citizens operating in that country. They could also facilitate sessions where it would be possible for UK actors to learn from their hot-spot counterparts.

To conclude,

As I have said, this report does not seek to provide a magic cure for all the causes of kidnapping all at once. There are many issues that could not have as much coverage in the report as I would have liked. But what the report does seek to do is take a manageable part of the problem and find achievable ways to move forward there.

I have eluded to the fact that this is stage one of a very long process, and before I finish a word to the future. Kidnapping policy is an of work that the Centre is firmly committed to, and we want to develop more work to tackle other important parts of the problem. I look forward to comments on the content and recommendations made in this report but sincerely hope that everyone here tonight will continue to be engaged and support the work of the Centre in this crucial area of policy.