My heart sank when I read last week that another westerner had been kidnapped by the Iranian government. Benjamin Briere, a French tourist, was picked up in May 2020, his family spending the first year of his captivity keeping quiet as they’d no doubt been advised to by the French government. His crime? Taking photos. The charges against him? Espionage and “propaganda against the system.” The former is punishable by death.

Benjamin, like all westerners held hostage in Iran, is an ordinary citizen whose nationality makes him a valuable commodity for his country of detention. His captivity, and the inability of his government to get him home, serves two purposes; it allows Iran to taunt a western government, mocking them for their impotence, and it provides a point of leverage when the time comes to negotiate on some other issue: nuclear disarmament, sanctions, access to COVID vaccines.

His sister summed it up perfectly when she told France 24 recently, “We believe the game is somewhere else but what it is about is completely beyond us. He has been caught in a trap. Benjamin is not a spy, he is an ordinary French citizen, a tourist who found himself caught in an unreal case.” Like scores of other westerners held in Iran, Benjamin is a pawn in a messy game of geopolitical chess.

Western governments for too long have fumbled their way awkwardly through these hostage cases, whether in Iran, North Korea, China, Russia or Venezuela. They can’t even bring themselves to call them such; ‘arbitrary detention’ is the current label of choice. Hostages are released from time to time; most famously, Americans, including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, came home when the Iran nuclear deal was brokered in 2016, and others have returned here and there, with less clarity about the tactics used to secure their release.

Earlier this year, under the leadership of the Canadian government, 58 countries signed the ‘Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations’, later issuing an action plan. G7 Foreign Ministers meeting in London in May reiterated their commitment to the declaration and pledged to work together to bring this illegal and immoral practice to an end.

As G7 leaders meet in Cornwall this weekend, the issue of state hostage taking – or arbitrary detention – is likely to be raised, either formally or in the margins of official discussions. All seven member states face this problem and need a solution. The UK should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Canada in leading efforts internationally in the months and years ahead, and commit to five pledges to manage these cases better and stop them happening in the future.  

Call a spade a spade

Westerners like Benjamin and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe are not ‘arbitrary detainees’ – they are hostages. They are being held against their will without just cause for the purpose of extracting concessions from the hostages’ home governments. We need to give them the status they deserve, call out the states holding them, and ensure these hostages and their families receive the same standard and range of support that is offered to traditional hostage cases. Right now, they are left in a consular no-man’s-land.

The US government hasn’t gone so far as to use the ‘H’ word, but it has enshrined in law – via the Levenson Act named after Bob Levenson who was held hostage by Iran, assumed dead – that these cases get the same care, support and political attention as traditional hostage cases. The UK should follow their lead and give consular and legal parity across all hostage cases.

Consistency of support

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee found that the families of state hostages do not receive consistent care and support. The UK government needs to commit to the following changes.

For hostages, the UK government must assert its consular rights – as Germany does, for example – to ensure British hostages receive prison visits and access to medical care and legal support and are accompanied to court hearings by British embassy staff.

For families, it must declassify as much information as possible, so families have a clear understanding of their loved one’s plight and what is being done to bring them home. “Trust us, we’re doing all we can” is not acceptable. The government should create a ‘hostage family charter’ so all families know what they can expect from government. At present, families learn as they go and those who shout loudest or have prior experience of government get more. It should also refer all hostage families – whether held by states or non-state actors – to specialist services like Hostage International, so they have independent, specialist support.

A team of all the talents

These are complicated and sensitive cases, which require all talents and knowledge to be seated around the table. The UK government should double down on efforts to join up working across government, to ensure cases don’t miss crucial information or connections. It should also accept it doesn’t have all the answers; on state hostage cases, diplomacy can be a problem as well as part of the solution.

Organizations like the Richardson Center in the US have demonstrated the value of bringing people into the hostage enterprise from outside government – former diplomats like Governor Richardson who established the Center, business people, academics, diaspora communities with well-placed contacts back home. Often, it’s these people who manage to get communications started, and create a process that governments can finish. ‘Fringe diplomacy’ has a significant role to play in state hostage cases.

Leave no-one behind

Negotiations are ongoing regarding the so-called nuclear deal with Iran, which the US withdrew from under President Trump. The UK government must insist that hostage release is a pre-condition for the deal and that a ‘snap back’ clause is included to prevent Iran resuming its hostage taking activity after a deal is signed, as happened in 2016. As opportunities arise for agreements with other countries, the UK must maintain this stance to ensure innocent citizens come home to their families and are not left behind.

Measurement matters

Understanding of the scale of state hostage taking and what works in bringing people home is currently limited. Lord Ahmad, Minister responsible for such cases, recently declined to even state how many Britons were being held in Iran in response to a question in the House of Lords. This makes no sense at all.

The Levenson Act requires the US government to issue an annual report to Congress on all hostage cases, in order to increase awareness and accountability. The UK government should commit to the same level of reporting and ask other western governments to follow suit. It should also adopt the recommendation of its own commissioned review, the MacGregor Review, to collate clearer and more systematic data on cases and what works. It’s the most basic requirement of evidence-based policy making and does not impact privacy or national security.

State hostage cases are some of the most complex cases I’ve seen. British citizens languish in prison without access to the most basic of support, their families suffer alone and often in silence back home, powerless in the face of geopolitical standoff.

The UK government has an opportunity to lead the way in tackling this growing crime, by raising the standard of care for hostages and their families, enhancing understanding of the problem, and bringing allies together to end this illegal and immoral activity.