We woke today to the fantastic news that American journalist, Danny Fenster, has been freed from prison in Myanmar. His crime? Being a journalist under a military dictatorship. Just last week, he was sentenced to 11 years for a series of charges, including incitement for spreading false or inflammatory information, and visa violations. He was due to face further charges relating to terrorism and sedition, which could have resulted in him spending the rest of his life in a Myanmar prison. To recap: his crime? Being a journalist under a military dictatorship. Also known as state hostage taking.
The man on the tarmac
The man meeting Danny Fenster on the tarmac at Yangon airport was not Secretary of State Anthony Blinken or US Ambassador to Myanmar, Thomas Vajda. It was Bill Richardson, former Governor of New Mexico, Secretary of Energy and UN Ambassador under Bill Clinton.
To Americans who follow these things, this won’t be a surprise. Richardson has secured the release of countless Americans, specializing in state hostages – those held by rogue states like Myanmar. A growing number of countries, including Iran and Russia, seize westerners with the aim of embarrassing or exerting pressure on their government or securing other concessions, such as aid or medical equipment. To date, Richardson has negotiated the release of Otto Warmbier from North Korea, Xiyue Wang and Michael White from Iran and Josh Holt from Venezuela, to name just a few. There have been very many more.
How can Richardson and his colleagues get an American released?
The secret lies in ‘fringe diplomacy’, working with the implicit support and sometimes cooperation of the US Administration, but wholly independent from it. State hostage cases are in part the result of the breakdown in state-to-state relations, so applying the power, resource and might of the US government can be counter-productive. Richardson is respected on the international stage, has developed a reputation for delivering on his promises, and somehow manages to get dictators and ‘strong men’ to come to the table. He held face-to-face negotiations with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s military ruler in his efforts to bring Danny Fenster home.
A recent report by The Washington Post pointed to the rise of state hostage taking. 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.
Richardson is the most prolific American ‘fringe diplomat’, but he is not the only one. David Bradley, owner of Atlantic Media, played a critical role in bringing home from Libyan captivity one of his journalists, Clare Gillis, along with her cell mate, Jim Foley. Bradley tried again, unsuccessfully, to free Jim and his fellow American hostages held and murdered by ISIS in Syria in 2014. He did, though, play a critical role in securing the release of Theo Padnos weeks after Jim’s murder. Journalists like Jim are a frequent target for hostage taking.
Public-private partnerships on US national security
It would be easy to dismiss Richardson and Bradley as atypical mavericks bucking the American diplomatic system. Far from it. The US has a long and proud record of public-private partnership on national security. One such example is The Overseas Security Advisory Council. It was created in 1985 to help American industry and government to work together to keep US interests safe abroad.
Even on matters as sensitive and secretive as hostage taking, US government officials regularly convene external experts to advise and assist: business leaders, academics, cultural figures, well-connected diaspora members and former diplomats. I’ve seen it in action on many of the cases I’ve been involved with in the US.
Where is the British Bill Richardson?
As state hostage taking continues to rise, and Britons like Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori are held for years without hope of release, where is the UK equivalent of Bill Richardson or David Bradley? The British government shows no signs of recognizing the value of fringe diplomacy as a tool in its state hostage taking toolkit or reaching beyond the civil service for help.
British politicians talk big on state hostage taking, but refuse to admit the scale of the problem, the fact that it’s growing, or that they have no ideas what to do about it. While the US government embraces input from outsiders, the British dig their heels in waiting for the world to change. It’s time for a different approach.
The odds are long – but we must not lose hope
Bill Richardson said in a statement about Danny Fenster’s release, “This is the day that you hope will come when you do this work. We are so grateful that Danny will finally be able to reconnect with his loved ones, who have been advocating for him all this time, against immense odds.”
The odds against release are indeed high; no-one can tell you that better than Richard Ratcliffe, who just completed a 3-week hunger strike to increase pressure on the British government to act to bring his wife, Nazanin, home.
Today, November 15, happens to be Bill Richardson’s 74th birthday. I imagine Danny’s freedom was more than he dared hope for as a birthday present. And yet, here we are. The odds are long, but they are not impossible. We must never lose hope. And we must do everything we can to bring our people home – and stop state hostage taking for good.