America Held Hostage: Day 15,606

Find a target, bring fabricated charges, and use the case as leverage to extract something – or someone – in return. This is the foreign hostage playbook that Vladimir Putin is using against Brittney Griner. The WNBA star has been in prison in Moscow since February for drug possession and smuggling and faces 10 years in prison. But don’t forget the last step of the playbook. Russian authorities are interested in swapping Ms Griner for Viktor Bout, a Russian-born arms dealer who is serving a 25-year sentence in US federal prison. His crime? Conspiracy to kill Americans. The injustice is fully visible.

Ms. Griner’s case is tragic, but hardly new. If the US doesn’t do more, it won’t be the last time.

The Biden administration introduced two measures last week to curb the unlawful detention and kidnapping of Americans abroad. President Biden declared a national emergency via executive order, declaring that such practices “pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken added a new designation to the government’s travel advisories to warn Americans about countries complicit in the practice.

These are commendable first steps, but more aggressive action is required. Mr. Biden should launch a new multilateral deal with the ambitious goal of ending hostage-taking altogether.

The modern era of state-sponsored hostage-taking began with the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, when Iranian revolutionaries seized the US embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans for 444 days until US approval, including $7.9 billion in frozen Iranian assets assets release concessions. Today, dozens of Americans and countless other foreigners are being unjustly detained by countries like Iran, Russia, China, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Syria and Myanmar.

Given the nature of these arrests, hostages depend on their governments to negotiate their release. Although the US has struggled to conduct these negotiations in the past, recent administrations have tried to improve their approach. President Obama issued a directive in 2015 to appoint a special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, to be responsible for coordinating an intergovernmental response. President Trump signed the Robert Levinson Act into law in 2020, which aims to simplify the State Department’s review and action in such cases.

But progress on the ground has been limited. This is partly because detentions are usually resolved bilaterally on a case-by-case basis. Release concessions also tend to be tight. The consequence of this action is that several American hostages were left behind at two of the Biden administration’s recent negotiations – one in Venezuela, the other in Russia.

This practice is merely an incentive for further hostage-taking. Consider the case of Siamak Namazi, an American of Iranian descent who was detained by Iran in October 2015. When Mr. Namazi was abandoned by Mr. Obama during a prisoner swap in 2016, Iranian authorities arrested his then 79-year-old father, Baquer Namazi. Both were left behind after two more individual releases negotiated by the Trump administration. Eighteen months into the Biden administration, these men are still waiting.

Rogue states must be convinced that the consequences will be severe. A new multilateral agreement could serve as an effective deterrent. Such an agreement should contain several key elements.

First, it should be based on the principle of collective defence. Like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Article 5 commitment, this agreement would establish that a hostage-taking by one signatory would be tantamount to a hostage-taking by all.

Second, the agreement should establish specific actions that each signatory can take individually and collectively when a national of a signatory is abducted. In February 2021, Canada led a constructive multilateral effort by 58 countries condemning the use of arbitrary detention in interstate relations. That served as an effective model – but his explanation offered no concrete answers.

Under a new deal, countries would commit to considering options such as public condemnation, the cancellation of official visits and the imposition of targeted sanctions on individuals and organizations conducting or assisting hostage-taking. And if a state were to engage in hostage-taking as a widespread practice, countries would consider measures such as opposing the offender state’s candidates for positions in multilateral institutions, curtailing state loans, and suspending and blocking economic development or security aid.

Mr. Biden has rightly stated that state-sponsored wrongful detention poses a serious threat to America’s national security. The next step must be to disrupt the hostage enterprise at its source. These efforts require a multilateral agreement to enforce consequences so dramatic that the costs of engaging in the practice would far outweigh the benefits.

Mr. Genser is an international human rights lawyer who has represented American hostages in countries including Cambodia, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran and Nicaragua. Ms. Gleason is a student at Columbia Law School. Both work in the international legal team for Siamak and Baquer Namazi.

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