For 21 days, Richard Ratcliffe has starved himself and slept on a cold pavement outside the Foreign Office. Why? To bring attention to his British wife, Nazanin, who has been held hostage by Iran for almost six years. Her crime? Being in the wrong place with the wrong passport. She flew to Tehran in 2016 to introduce her one-year-old daughter, Gabriella, to her doting grandparents. She didn’t come home.

Iran is part of a growing club of countries, including Russia, China, North Korea and Venezuela, who arrest westerners like Nazanin on trumped up charges, such as espionage and attempting to overthrow the state. Seemingly, the more absurd, the better. The “legal” process is a feeble smokescreen for their true intentions. Former US Special Envoy for Iran, Brian Hook, described Iran’s activity this way, “It’s a tool of statecraft. It’s part of Iran’s foreign policy to take people hostage who are innocent and then trade them later for some objective that they think advances their own objectives.”

It’s no exaggeration to say that countries like the UK have no idea what to do about the growing threat of state hostage taking.

In some cases, there are clear demands; Iran has said on- and off-the-record that if Britain repays a historical £400 million debt, it will release Nazanin and the other British citizens it is holding hostage. It was clear that China seized Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in retaliation for the house arrest in Toronto pending US extradition of Huawei executive, Meng Wanzhou. It was no surprise they were freed from their Chinese jail cells on the same day Meng left Canada after a deal was reached with US prosecutors.

In most cases, there are no clear demands; members of the ‘State Hostage Taking Club’ speculatively pick up westerners, holding them until the time comes that they can use them as leverage over their home government. Ordinary and innocent citizens and their families are nothing more than expendable pawns in a 3D game of geo-political chess.

Though it might be difficult, we should not give up hope. There are things we can start doing today that will improve understanding of the problem, change the risk calculus for state hostage takers, enhance our ability to bring state hostages home, and offer much-needed support for hostages and their families back home.

Call a spade a spade

Westerners held in countries like Iran and Russia are not ‘arbitrary detainees’ – a diplomatic euphemism – they are hostages. They are held against their will without just cause for the purpose of extracting concessions from their home governments. We need to give them the status they deserve and call out the states holding them.

In December 2020, the UK Foreign Affairs Select Committee recommended that the UK government refer to British citizens held in Iran as ‘hostages’. The US government hasn’t gone so far as to use this word, but it has enshrined in law – via the Levinson Act named after Bob Levinson who was held hostage by Iran, now assumed dead – that these cases have parity with ‘traditional’ hostage cases. It’s time for all governments to call a spade a spade, dispense with the diplomatic-speak, and start using the ‘H’ word.  

Stop talking about ‘dual nationals’

When governments refer to their citizens as ‘dual nationals’ they do the state hostage taker’s job for them. Some westerners held in Iran have Iranian citizenship as well as British or American, but not all do, for example, Australian Kylie Moore-Gilbert and Chinese-American Xiyue Wang. And in countries like Russia, China and North Korea, dual nationality very rarely features. British politicians talk big about the power and influence of Global Britain but water down their responsibility when citizens have ties elsewhere. Governments must claim their people as their own – and stand up for their freedom.  

Don’t legitimize the ‘legality’ of state hostage taking

Too often, headlines about state hostage taking lead with the trumped-up charges, which cloak of legitimacy over the so-called ‘legal’ process. I recently delivered a lecture to an international group of mid-career professionals, including many who were foreign service workers. I was shocked at the ‘no smoke without fire’ approach that some took to state hostage taking, no doubt in part fueled by media coverage of these cases. As Jason Rezaian, Washington Post journalist and former state hostage, told CNN, journalists must take responsibility and stop giving credence to these charges in the way they report.

Quantify the crime

The British government won’t even say how big the problem of state hostage taking is. When Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly was asked by the Shadow Foreign Secretary how many British nationals are being held in Iran, he replied, “We do not confirm how many dual nationals are detained as, due to the small numbers, doing so may result in individuals being easily identified.” How would telling us how many are being held help us work out who they are?

Evidence is the cornerstone of effective policy making. Is the crime going up or down? Is there a pattern to when people are taken or released? Can we assess what measures were helpful or unhelpful to securing the release of state hostages so we can do better next time?

Policy makers across the rest of Whitehall realized decades ago that data plus independent scrutiny plus willingness to discuss alternatives equals better policy outcomes.

There are some things that need to stay out of view, but not the basic statistics. When a government won’t even say the scale of the problem it’s facing, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether there’s much going on behind closed doors.

Stand united, joint actions, and a team of all the talents

A recent report by The Washington Post pointed to the rise of state hostage taking. This isn’t just about Nazanin and the handful of other Britons currently held in Iran; there is a danger it’s becoming an accepted diplomatic tool, a low risk form of asymmetric warfare for countries who wish to poke the bear without provoking a full-on retaliatory strike.

The UK and its allies won’t stop this crime by dealing bilaterally behind the scenes. The Canadian Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations has so far attracted over 60 member states who stand united against state hostage taking and commit to working together to bring an end to it. Since its launch in February 2021, it’s noticeable that countries have begun to speak publicly about the plight of their allies’ state hostages as well as their own. Words need to be followed by actions: joint and coordinated sanctions, international extraditions, media campaigns, negotiations and, yes, sharing and publication of data.

This challenge extends beyond governments; we need to field a team of all the talents. The US government regularly convenes experts from outside its civil service to form a brains trust to advise and assist on hostage cases: business leaders, academics, cultural figures, well-connected diaspora members. In some cases, the solution to state hostage taking lies outside the reach of states, evidenced by the success of former US politician, Bill Richardson and his team. The UK could learn a lot from this approach; with a problem this complex, we need all and every talent around the table.    

Tonight, Richard returns home to his daughter and his first meal in three weeks. His wife Nazanin won’t be there, and he spoke just days ago about feeling depressed after a meeting with Foreign Office Minister, James Cleverly, when it was clear progress had not been made on her case. That an ordinary husband and father feels compelled to sleep rough without food for a perilous period of time underlines just how desperate the situation of state hostage taking has become.

One of the abiding images of his hunger strike for me was a picture of him standing outside Downing Street holding a large piece of cardboard. In a nod to the film, Love, Actually, he’d written these words:

“Don’t forget… we’re just a family standing in front of a Prime Minister asking him to keep his word.”

Politicians talk big on state hostage taking. It’s time to be honest – this is a bigger problem than they want to acknowledge, it’s growing, they have no idea what to do about it, and they are worried about the political costs of admitting that. State hostage taking is complicated and difficult, but we have overcome bigger problems before. With honesty, commitment and a united front, we can bring our hostages home – and stamp out this cruel and inhumane crime once and for all.