Hostage Diplomacy as an International Security Threat: Strengthening our Collective Action, Deterrence and Response
The arbitrary arrest, detention, or sentencing of foreign nationals by a state to exercise leverage over a foreign government is an emerging but increasingly serious issue that requires international attention. Also known as “hostage diplomacy,” arbitrary detention used for diplomatic leverage exposes all persons who travel, work, and live abroad to risk and undermines the basic principles of international relations, including mutual trust and peaceful settlement of disputes between states. It also contravenes international law, threatens state sovereignty, and destabilizes the rules-based international order.
Set against a backdrop of an increasingly fractured international geopolitical environment, hostage diplomacy is among a growing range of hybrid security threats, such as cyber attacks, foreign interference, economic coercion, and misinformation. The impact this practice has on victims and their families is immeasurable, and we owe it to all travelers, workers, and those living abroad to assess its full range of international security implications and uphold a strong collective front against this practice.
To mark the 3rd Anniversary of the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in collaboration with Global Affairs Canada, the Office of the Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, hosted a special event to explore the international security dimensions of arbitrary detention in state-to-state relations.
Remarks by US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken
Hostage Diplomacy as an International Security Threat: Strengthening Our Collective Action, Deterrence, and Response
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you very, very much. And the board meeting is now convened. (Laughter.)
Bishop, thank you for your powerful words, and very appropriate words. I think you pointed to something that is perhaps most significant of all in the moment that we’re all living, and is the greatest poison in the human well, and that is dehumanization – the inability to see the humanity in each other. When that happens, when our hearts harden, then it’s very, very difficult to move forward.
And so I hope that both your words and the work that we’re all doing together on this particular aspect of dehumanization – and that is arbitrary detention – will resonate.
Mark, thank you for your leadership over so many years in so many different ways. It’s particularly good to be here back at the Wilson Center. I’ve had the opportunity to be here over the years on many occasions. But this is an institution that is doing consequential work on the most significant challenges of our time. We’re grateful for it because, needless to say, there is no monopoly on ideas, never mind good ideas. And we certainly need them and welcome them.
I’m very grateful to our co-hosts as well from the Center for Strategic and International Studies – and I have a little bit of history with that wonderful institution, having been a senior fellow there some years ago – and Global Affairs Canada, as well as the experts, the journalists, and other partners from civil society who are here with us today. Each of you is critical to ending this practice of wrongful detention.
And I’d particularly like to recognize the formerly detained individuals and their families who are here today and that Mark’s already referenced. Not only extraordinary advocates, but indispensable partners. And the fact that having been through an experience that’s almost impossible for anyone who’s not been through it to fully describe or appreciate, the fact that you continue to lend your time, your efforts, your passion, your hearts to helping to end this practice and to helping others means a lot.
And last but not least, to my colleague and to my friend, Mélanie Joly, the foreign minister of Canada. Mélanie’s personal commitment to this issue – bringing arbitrarily detained people home, supporting their families, strengthening our international response – this builds on decades of Canadian leadership, and it’s been instrumental in getting us to the place we’re at today.
And then finally finally, as we’re doing thanks – Mark’s mentioned this, but I have to give a special tip of the hat to my friend and colleague, Roger Carstens, our Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. Now, Roger’s office is lined with photographs of unjustly held Americans. He, his team, are constantly traveling the country, constantly traveling the world to visit with families, to try to find ways forward. And what I’ve seen over these past three years is a leader and a team that lead especially with extraordinary empathy and absolute determination, so that we can look families in the eye and say, we are doing everything possible to bring your loved ones home. I carry with me and have in my office a card where I have the names of every arbitrarily detained American around the world. And of all the things that I get some pleasure from doing in this job, none gives me greater pleasure than crossing a name off of that list.
Thanks to the work of Roger, his team; thanks to the very difficult decisions that President Biden has made over the course of the last three years, we have been able to cross out 45 names since 2021, including just in December when we brought home six American citizens, the last Americans wrongfully held in Venezuela.
But there are still too many people on that list. And I know that homecomings are bittersweet things, even painful things, for the families whose loved ones remain detained. I mean, on the one hand it’s a reminder that everything is possible, and that, yes, we are going to bring their loved one home. But until that day happens, it’s also painful.
Yesterday, as it happens, I spoke on the phone with Paul Whelan. Our intensive efforts to bring Paul home continue every single day, and they will until he and Evan Gershkovich and every other American wrongfully detained is back with their loved ones.
We’re also working to bring home the remaining hostages in Gaza, who’ve now been held for more than 130 days. We’re working intensely with Egypt, with Qatar, on a proposal to bring about their release. I’ve also met with their families multiple times. They’re being supported by our SPEHA team. The agony that they face – simply not knowing, not knowing the fate of their loved ones – is beyond our imaginations.
And here’s the truly heartbreaking part: Unfortunately, this is part of a rising trend. Increasingly, states – but also non-state actors – are wrongfully detaining people, often as political pawns. This practice threatens the safety of everyone who travels, conducts business, who lives abroad. It’s, of course, a brazen violation of individual human rights of the victims, a violation of international law, a violation of state sovereignty – and first and foremost, a violation of their basic humanity.
Back in July of 2022, President Biden declared that hostage-taking and wrongful detention are a national emergency. That declaration – building on the bipartisan Robert Levinson Act – has expanded the toolkit that we can use to help get our people home, with sanctions, with visa restrictions, with greater coordination across our own government.
Now, bringing people home is our primary focus. But it is not, in and of itself and alone, enough to resolve what is genuinely a crisis. The international community has to join together to deter future detentions – so that we can actually put an end to this practice once and for all. And the most effective way to do that is through collective action. For all that any one of our individual countries can bring to the table, we can bring so much more – and this is at the heart of the Canadian initiative – when we’re actually acting together.
That’s the spirit behind the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations. Now 74 countries plus the European Union have signed on to this initiative. And we’re proud to have endorsed the declaration back in January of 2021.
This coalition is raising the financial and reputational costs of arbitrary detention, and strengthening global pressure against it. We’re synchronizing best practices for deterrence. We’re building out a global network of hostage affairs envoys like Roger – and I’m happy to see that Canada’s first senior official for hostage affairs, Julie Sunday, is also with us today.
We’re working with partners outside of government, like Global Affairs Canada independent international panel on arbitrary detention and CSIS’s bipartisan Hostage Commission, to better use existing legal frameworks to target this practice.
Together, we’re sending a clear message: Our citizens are not human bargaining chips. They are not political pawns. If any country wrongfully holds any of our people, we will hold them accountable.
Working with our Canadian friends, we’re trying to expand this partnership to make it more inclusive. The declaration’s first ministerial, held at the United Nations General Assembly last fall co-hosted by Malawi and Costa Rica, welcomed representatives from every part of the world. We’re also engaging the private sector to raise awareness of this threat and develop resources to make employees safe while abroad.
Now, keep in mind, countries that engage in this practice are also increasingly isolating themselves. Who in their right minds would want to travel to a country, engage in business in a country, work in a country, live in a country that engages in the practice of arbitrary detention? So this is a sure path to pariah status. Now, unfortunately, a number of the countries engaged in this practice are already in that category, but it should be a reminder to each and every one that this is a path that leads to nowhere for them and for all engaged.
Now, as Mark mentioned, we’re joined today, among others, by Siamak Namazi. Before his release last September, Siamak was the longest wrongfully detained American in Iran. When he was released, he wrote that, in prison, and I quote, he “experienced the worst of humanity every day. But outside of those walls, there were countless people who reminded [him] of the best of humanity.” And a number of those people are in this room.
Family members. Lawyers. Neighbors. Colleagues. Fellow prisoners. Strangers from around the world who ensured that he was not forgotten. And through their advocacy, helping him reunite with his loved ones and, ultimately, return home.
Our single most powerful tool to bring people home and deter future detentions is our collective will and our collective action, rooted in our common humanity.
Today, that’s clearly on display. So I simply want to say I’m grateful to everyone who’s here, not just for being here today but for this ongoing commitment to a singular and important mission. And I am convinced that through the work that you’re doing, through the work that we’re doing together, we will not stop until every family is made whole and until this practice stops once and for all.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
Hon. Antony J. Blinken
Hon. Mélanie Joly
The mission of the Wilson Center's Canada Institute is to raise the level of knowledge of Canada in the United States, particularly within the Washington, DC policy community. Research projects, initiatives, podcasts, and publications cover contemporary Canada, US-Canadian relations, North American political economy, and Canada's global role as it intersects with US national interests. Read more
Thank you for your interest in this event. Please send any feedback or questions to our Events staff.