How Can Australia Confront ‘Hostage Diplomacy’?

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How Can Australia Confront ‘Hostage Diplomacy’?

Countries that engage in hostage diplomacy implicitly recognize that the countries they target value the health and safety of their citizens. 

How Can Australia Confront ‘Hostage Diplomacy’?
Credit: Depositphotos

This week the Australian Senate referred an inquiry into the wrongful detention of Australian citizens by foreign governments to the Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Reference Committee. The inquiry comes after a number of high-profile cases of Australians being arbitrarily detained overseas, but is more broadly a response to arbitrary detention or “hostage diplomacy” emerging as a trend within contemporary international relations. The practice has become one of a number of hybrid security threats that are below the level of active warfare, but are nevertheless insidious attempts to exercise leverage, undermine international norms, and attack democratic societies.  

Hostage taking had previously been seen as a practice used by radical nonstate actors to gain attention and leverage for specific causes. However, increasingly it has become a tactic used by autocratic states, using the guise of law to try to give their actions legitimacy. These actions may have particular outcomes in mind, but also may be used simply to bully or demonstrate power. The practice has a corrosive effect on international relations, compounding mistrust, and can exacerbate other disagreements between countries. 

Primary advocacy for the new inquiry came from the Australian Wrongful and Arbitrary Detention Alliance. The group was founded by three Australians recently freed after enduring arbitrary detention outside of Australia: Dr. Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who was imprisoned in Iran for two years and three months on fabricated charges of espionage; Professor Sean Turnell, a former economic adviser to Myanmar’s democratic government led by Aung San Suu Kyi who was imprisoned for 650 days following the military coup in February 2021; and Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist imprisoned for over three years by the Chinese Communist Party on unsubstantiated espionage charges.

The inquiry seeks to review how Australia responds to cases such as these – its current processes for categorizing and declaring cases of wrongful detention, the management of cases by government agencies, communications with and support for families of imprisoned persons, support for those released from imprisonment, and most importantly how Australia can deter the practice of arbitrary detention used for diplomatic leverage.

The latter relies on an international network of countries that send a strong signal that this behavior is intolerable. Driven by Canada – a state alongside Australia that has been targeted in hostage diplomacy and is thus at the forefront of advocating against these abuses – the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations was devised in 2021 with the aim of enhancing international cooperation the practice. The declaration was initially endorsed by 58 countries, including Australia, as well as the European Union. Support has now increased to 77 countries. 

However, while the declaration outlines a set of principles that it seeks to encourage in international relations, it is light on practical responses that can actually combat the practice and inflict costs on countries that engage in it. Of course, this is easier said than done. But given that the regimes that engage in hostage diplomacy are disinterested in principles that flow from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, then tangible measures that deter their behavior need to be devised. 

This may be where Australia’s inquiry could prove most useful. Obviously Australia lacks the international weight to create deterrence by itself, but it is capable of devising ideas that can be honed and advanced with the 77 countries that have now endorsed the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention. Moore-Gilbert herself has made the case that Australia should use Magnitsky-style sanctions more effectively to deter hostage diplomacy, and do so in concert with other states. 

The other practical measure is simply to provide clear warnings to Australian citizens of the risks of traveling to countries where they may run the risk of being arbitrarily detained, and to make it clear to these countries that the Australian government does not consider them to be safe. While some regimes may be shameless and unembarrassed by their international reputations, these reputations can have a knock-on effect to economic decision-making – as is becoming evident with companies moving away from China – something that they would take far more seriously. 

Countries that engage in hostage diplomacy implicitly recognize that the countries they target value the health and safety of their citizens. They see this as a vulnerability to exploit, as hostage-taking simply doesn’t work if the target country has no respect for human rights. They also know that liberal democracies won’t reciprocate, seeing this as an open goal, rather than an admission of their own cynicism. 

The increased prominence of these practices has created a new series of threats to individuals who work, study, live, or travel abroad. For those who have suffered – and continue to suffer – this form of abuse, the impact is immeasurable on themselves and their families. Australia and Australians have been prominent victims of these tactics, making the government’s current search for improved responses and avenues of deterrence rightly a national priority.