After months of US government consultations in which Reporters Without Borders (RSF) took part, President Barack Obama met today with former hostages and the families of US citizens held hostage and unveiled a new hostage policy.
RSF hails the policy improvements, including provisions for involving the families more and the possibility of negotiating with hostage-takers, but says the US authorities must now demonstrate that they are equal to the hopes raised by the announcement.
RSF had long been pressing for a hostage policy review, calling in particular for more transparency towards the families, better cooperation between US government agencies, better protection for hostage identity and assets and, above all, for a military solution not to be regarded as the only option.
Today’s announcement was preceded by extensive consultations in which RSF took part, especially when meetings were held with the National Security Council.
The new policy reiterates the principle of “no concessions” (no ransom payments and no prisoner swaps) but the US government will no longer prohibit negotiations or direct or indirect contacts with individuals or groups holding hostages, or with any third party intermediaries, including private firms.
“We welcome the new policy, the result of consultations of a kind that has been unique in the United States,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christo-phe Deloire said.
“We have always said the military option should not be the only one and the White House now says there is room for negotiations in the handling of hostage cases. This is a healthy development. Words must be translated into action and more information must be shared with the families, who have too long been sidelined when strategic decisions were taken about their loved-ones. The US authorities must show they are equal to the hopes they have raised.”
On the eve of today’s announcement, RSF programme director Lucie Morillon attended a meeting with former hostages and the families of hostages at the National Counterterrorism Center at which representatives of several government agencies presented the conclusions of the consultations.
The participants included Debra and Marc Tice, the parents of Austin Tice, a jour-nalist held in Syria since 2012 for whom RSF has been campaigning, and Diane and John Foley, the parents of James Foley, a journalist cruelly murdered by Islamic State in August 2014. RSF has been assisting and advising them, partly via the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, which helps kidnap victims and war reporters.
In order to involve the families more in the strategy for the release of their loved-ones, the government is creating a “Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell” that will bring together representatives of all the agencies concerned with the job of developing and executing specific strategies for the release of hostages and will report to the hostage response group at the White House.
A member of this cell and a “Family engagement team”, will maintain direct contact with the families, while a special presidential envoy will be appointed to carry out international diplomatic initiatives. An “Issue Manager for Hostage Affair” will also synchronize intelligence community efforts and is tasked to ensure that the families are given more information.
The fact that families will no longer be threatened with prosecution if they try to raise ransom money is an important element of the new policy. The new policy constitutes significant progress but could go much further. It will be evaluated in six months’ time and a report will be drafted after it has been in effect for a year.
“The families are still worried about transparency and the support they will be able to receive”, RSF programme director Lucie Morillon said. “Instead of naming a high-level coordinator, a desire expressed by some families, the US authorities have opted to create a fusion cell with a rotating director. This mechanism will have to prove that it is capable of overcoming the differences between the various agencies and instituting rapid and effective procedures.”
“We regret that the issue of protecting the personal assets and online data of hostages has not been clearly addressed. The government has a role to play in directing families towards the private-sector companies involved.”
“Finally, some families have suggested that NGOs involved in these issues should be members of the ‘hostage recovery fusion cell’ or linked to it. We ask the authorities to heed this request, which is motivated by a desire to ensure transparency in the procedures used. RSF stands ready to participate in the evaluation of the new policy in the coming months in order to be sure that corrective action is taken in the event of anything not working properly.”
In a statement published shortly after President Obama's speech, Diane and John Foley said they were "grateful to the Hostage Review team for shining a spotlight on the silent crisis of American citizens kidnapped abroad" and that they "applaud their willingness to examine the previously inadequate response to the kidnapping of American citizens abroad".
The Tice family issued the following statement:
"After six months of what we believe to be a sincere and dedicated effort to update and clearly define US hostage policy, we are cautiously optimistic that the Executive Order signed by the President is a significant beginning towards effectively bringing our son Austin and other American hostages safely home. We hope this policy will instill in our government a clear focus on the soonest, safe return of all current and future hostages.
We continue to have concerns about several issues, including the leadership structure described in the policy, and the lack of specific mention of the protection of the identity and assets of hostages.
Nevertheless, we think this is a strong start, and we appreciate the President's commitment to periodically reviewing and improving this policy.
Our family will be delighted when we hold Austin in our arms as proof of the effectiveness of this new policy."