Countries that take hostages need to know there will be consequences. But in the case of Griner, surprised the Russians aren’t paying us to take her back. Journalist and former diplomat Jonathan Wachtel tells us about the story.
Brittney Griner actively refused to be present during the playing of the U.S. National Anthem before games, and even demanded the Anthem and flag ceremony be avoided in all games.
I wonder what it feels like now with her begging the Red, White and Blue to come to her rescue? pic.twitter.com/Q9WHSU2SlB
— Errol Webber (@ErrolWebber) July 7, 2022
Wachtel: Bad behavior by the world’s rogue actors has become so shocking that we can lose track of their full array of dirty tricks. So, it is with the age-old practice of hostage-taking, which is staging a comeback. Even one of the world’s most famous women, basketball star Brittney Griner, couldn’t escape the vicious game of hostage diplomacy.
Caged since February and possibly facing a decade in prison for allegedly possessing cannabis oil, the Olympian is a pawn in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine as he pushes back at sanctions and his forces battle western weapons. She joins dozens of fellow Americans and many more westerners languishing in captivity.
It goes far beyond Russia. From Azerbaijan to Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela, we see hostages taken again and again as bargaining chips by autocratic regimes. While Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions prohibits this, and democracies have sanctioned Syria’s Assad and Russia’s Putin for their aggression and butchery, hostage diplomacy goes strangely unpunished.
Governments tend to buckle in the face of pressure by paying ransom, caving into prisoner swaps that let criminals go free, and other concessions. Indeed, autocrats know democracies are often willing to violate core values to bring home their citizens.
As citizens of democracies, when our governments allow this – when we project indifference to fellow citizens stripped of the presumption of innocence – we are in effect supporting the hostage-takers. We should make the practice extremely costly for the perpetrators.
We might start by remembering the lessons of the past. In medieval times, high-level hostages were used as collateral to ensure that each side followed through with commitments; we have found other ways to guarantee contracts.
Ruthless rulers have also used hostage ransom as a primary financial resource. In the early 1800s, the United States and Sweden fought against four North African states to stop pirates from seizing merchant ships and holding the crews for ransom.
“To the shores of Tripoli,” the line from the Marines’ Hymn, refers to this war, which followed unfruitful diplomatic efforts by Presidents Jefferson and Adams, when the Barbary rulers miscalculated America’s military capabilities and were defeated, finally putting an end to the piracy. Force works with those who understand only force.
In modern times, with international law in place but only haphazardly enforced, the taking of hostages has become a weapon of diplomacy. A cheap asymmetrical weapon, rogue regimes can deploy it effectively against the U.S., Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and other powerful nations.
Autocratic leaders use their state-controlled media to spin a narrative that justifies the seizing of foreigners, while the news media in democratic countries is compelled to cover the event as a public service, in effect publicizing the demands. Thick-skinned dictators and their henchmen weather the external bad press, while striking fear in the rest of the world and celebrating their impunity to the rule of law…
World and business leaders, and all of us as defenders of the free world, should fight back at criminal autocrats through sanctions, boycotts, and international censure. Failing to do so puts us in even greater peril and robs far too many years of their lives.