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The Kidnapping Business – Launch event speech

Article by Keith Bloomfield, Head CTPD, FCO

September 15, 2006

Apologies for John Battle’s absence, due to pressing parliamentary commitments. He asked me to make his speech in his absence and to thank The Foreign Policy Centre for the invitation. And of course thanks to Rachel Briggs for her interesting and thought-provoking work. This paper is very timely. Three weeks ago, Tim Selby and his Danish colleagues were released unharmed after a month in captivity in Bangladesh, and only last week two British nationals were released after eight days in detention in Somalia. One of the top films of the moment, “Proof of Life” is about kidnapping and its hero, Russell Crowe, has apparently been the subject of a kidnap plot himself. But there are many more kidnaps, both political and criminal, reported and unreported, involving nationals of many countries all over the world. Some of us find ourselves very much in the “kidnapping business”.

Let us make no mistake – kidnapping is a business, and in Latin America in particular it is big business. Some of the groups we are up against even organise themselves in the same way as legitimate businesses and make much bigger profits. Like drug trafficking – nad I should say in passing that kidnapping groups often have drug links – we are in certain parts of the world facing a powerful and well organised enemy. We thus have no illusions about the complexity of the problems we are likely to face when dealing with a kidnap. Nor about the fact that kidnapping is a rapidly growing and world-wide problem. The Foreign Office’s “hot-spots” – that is, areas where UK citizens are involved – are not quite the same as those global hot-spots quoted in the report. Since the beginning of 1997 we have dealt with 54 kidnap incidents involving over 100 British nationals. Our top kidnap countries are Nigeria, Yemen, Sierra Leone, Chechnya, Georgia, Colombia and Somalia – but there are many other countries which are not far behind in our league table and new ones, such as Bangladesh, are being added.

I would like to take this opportunity to explain to a knowledgeable audience the framework within which the FCO operates when a British national is kidnapped overseas. This is perhaps not as well publicised as it should be – not because it is secret information but because we believe in getting on with our job rather than spending time explaining what we are doing. I should start by saying that our objective is always the same, whether the motive is political, “economic” or criminal. If British citizens are kidnapped our first priority is to get them home safely. Of course we are interested in the kidnappers’ motives and demands – they are the keys to resolving the situation – but we never forget that we are dealing with human beings, and extremely anxious human beings at that. We are thus in constant contact with the hostages’ families and with the media. We recognise that if things go wrong we will be held responsible for the outcome, even if our involvement in the case is minimal. Our aim is to carry the families with us and ensure that they understand that each move we make is for the best. Let me assure you that no-one is more delighted than we are when we hear of a hostage’s safe return home.

The key to handling kidnaps is, of course, “joined-up” thinking. I head the FCO’s Counter-Terrorism Policy Department which handles all kidnaps involving British nationals. Most Foreign Ministries do not have the luxury of a whole department devoted to counter-terrorism, with the experience, contacts and expertise which we are fortunate enough to be able to build up. CTPD is the hub of all government activity when a British national is kidnapped overseas, but it could not operate without the support of many other departments within the FCO and elsewhere in Whitehall.

Every kidnap is different, but the mechanism for dealing with them is sadly, well-tested. It relies on the closest possible co-ordination between the different Whitehall departments and agencies, and effective liaison with the other governments, NGOs and international organisations involved. When the team is not dealing with real kidnaps it practices regularly. I have taken part both in real live incidents and exercises and I can confirm that they show joined-up government in action. The operation moves smoothly and at speed and, as in real life, everyone simply gets on with the job in hand, away from the media and the cameras.

The FCO also employs a hostage consultant, a former Metropolitan Police negotiator, who visits vulnerable countries which have expressed an interest in improving their response to kidnaps and spreads best practice. And we do work with organisations such as Control Risks where our interests overlap. I hope Sir James would agree that we have great respect for one another’s work.

I think it is worth repeating that the safety of the hostages is always paramount in a kidnap situation. This is the first message which we ask our Ambassador or High Commissioner on the spot to pass immediately to the government of any country in which a British national is kidnapped. We also ask him or her to make clear our policies of not making substantive concessions to hostage-takers and not paying ransoms. These are non-negotiable as far as the British government is concerned. Giving in once would reward a serious crime, make it much harder to resist a second time, and would turn many parts of the world into “no-go” areas for British nationals.

The last part of the message which we pass to host governments in hostage situations is that we look to them to bring the kidnap to a peaceful conclusion and bring the perpetrators to justice. We will offer as much support and assistance as is required, but it is always up to the authorities in the country concerned to resolve the situation. The multiplication of possible actors where there is a ransom demand should not detract from this basic principle, though we recognise that in practice the government concerned may not control the area where the hostages are being held or may not subscribe to our preferred strategy. Some of the methods employed by other governments to bring hostage situations to an end send shivers down our spines. We find ourselves constantly reminding others of our preference for a negotiated solution and our opposition to military action except as a last resort. Of course, different countries invariably have different ways of looking at things. Nothing however prepared us for a recent case where Ministers went on foot, deep into a notoriously dangerous area to negotiate personally for the hostages’ freedom. A am not, John Battle has specifically asked me to clarify, advocating a move to that sort of policy for the UK!

A kidnap is always a crisis. It is a crisis for the hostages, a crisis for their families and friends, often a crisis for the country where it happens – and it is a crisis for us. We try to manage it as we would any other crisis – by identifying the main players and keeping in constant touch with them; by developing a strategy and sticking to it; and by pursuing every avenue we can think of to bring the crisis to a controlled end. But we are only human and experience has taught us that the main rule in hostage cases is that there are very few rules. Often we do not have all the information; sometimes information is deliberately withheld from us; situations change fast and in remote places with poor communications and a huge time difference; the media produce stories which we can’t substantiate; and we are not always given the facts – people often tell us what they think we want to hear; or they don’t tell us the truth because they have an eye on the politics of the situation or, worse, their own personal or financial gain. I am quite sure that others here today in the same business have similar stories to tell. Resolving a kidnap, by whichever means you choose, is rarely simple. And, as we all know, kidnaps do not always end with a peaceful release of the hostages. Most of the kidnaps the FCO is working on are not current. Some of them happened many years ago. But we never give up. We will pursue the kidnappers until they are brought to justice and we will never stop following leads which might lead us to British nationals who have disappeared and whose fate is not known.

I want to stress though that the FCO is not only concerned with resolving kidnaps. We would much prefer to avoid them in the first place. FCO travel advice is freely available. It covers the whole world and it is deliberately kept as concise as possible. I cannot approve of the method of measuring quality by quantity, or numbers of words in this case. I am sure we all agree that brevity can be a virtue. Of course our travel advice doesn’t go into the detail which Control Risks is able to provide – at a price. It is intended to be freely available, generally applicable and easily digestible. Experience tells us that most people don’t want to read more than one or two paragraphs. And we also know that the vast majority of our customers, including major corporate customers, are very satisfied with the service we provide. Our travel advice is up-dated regularly and in the event of a kidnap or other crisis it can change constantly. The whole travel advice system was reviewed in 1999 and the travel area of the FCO’s website has just been improved. We hope that this will make it even more accessible and customer-friendly. But we must remember that it is only advice and it is worthless if no-one reads it. And, as we and others know to our cost, it is equally worthless if it is read and then ignored. We welcome constructive criticism, but I would like to underline the point that we are not in competition with Control Risks or any of the other companies providing a similar service. Unfortunately there is more than enough work to go around. Specialist companies cater for specialist markets. We can’t compete – and nor would we wish to.

Having said this, we accept without question the need to provide information to the public, including on where responsibilities for protecting individuals against kidnapping risk lie. In an effort to improve our service we will be adding a page on kidnapping to the FCO web site. This is intended to be read in conjunction with the travel advice for specific countries. It will set out some basic advice on personal safety, and the responsibilities of the different actors, outline the government’s policy on the handling of kidnaps which I have just explained to you, and point people in the direction of Embassies, High Commissions and Consulates overseas for more detailed information. We do not want to alarm people – kidnaps are, after all, rare in most parts of the world – but we accept the need for more information on the subject.

We are less convinced of the need for further regulation in this area. In our experience, employers are well aware of their responsibilities and of the risks in the areas where they operate. Our embassies already play a key role in many of the world’s security “hot spots” in raising the level of security consciousness among the local British community, often by convening regular meetings of their representatives or providing specific security advice. Similarly, FCO departments such as the Consular Division, the geographical desks, and CTPD can and do liaise with companies and NGOs in the UK on security issues in different countries and regions. When they can, they also try to get over the same messages to a wider audience by participating in conferences and seminars and contributing to specialist publications. More specifically, the UK hosted G8 conferences in London in 1998 and 2000 to establish Best Practice guidelines on hostage-taking and hijacking. These guidelines have been widely disseminated in international organisations such as the G8, EU, Commonwealth and ICAO and are readily available to others who might have to deal with such situations. I have copies available here if any of you would like them. Nonetheless, I would be interested to hear from others here if they think there is interest in a more formal coordination mechanism between government, industry and NGOs.

I look forward to an interesting discussion. Thank you again.

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