In Hollywood movies, hostage-taking is often framed as an act committed by militant or criminal groups operating independent of a country’s government. However, right now U.S. citizens are more often taken hostage by foreign governments than by nonstate actors. Sadly, it seems that the detention of WNBA champ Brittney Griner by Russian authorities may be part of that trend.
First, the timing is suspicious. Griner was detained in February, during Russia’s preparations to invade Ukraine. Then, the news about her detention was concealed.
The publicly released details about Griner’s case are sparse. This may be due to a desire by the U.S. government, the WNBA and her family to keep matters quiet for strategic reasons or for other factors, such as racial disparities in missing persons coverage. But what we know doesn’t support the theory that this is just a routine arrest.
First, the timing is suspicious. Griner was detained in February, during Russia’s preparations to invade Ukraine. Then, the news about her detention was concealed. Russia released the information only later, on March 5, at one of the highest points of tension between the U.S. and Russia in decades. And Griner was purportedly denied consular access — a basic right of any foreign national in detention — until March 23. We also have no independent verification that the cannabis oil charges the Russians have leveled at her are true.
While each case is unique, Griner’s included, understanding the broader pattern of how these detentions happen and the journey to release is key to combating the practice of hostage-taking, which upends families and communities.
Americans are being arbitrarily detained for political leverage around the world, some of them in Russia, Cuba, China, Venezuela and Iran. Many are kept in poor detention conditions and subjected to mental and physical torture, lack of medical treatment and denial of legal counsel and fair trial rights. They are wives, mothers, husbands, fathers and children who usually have no connection to the trumped-up charges against them. They are being punished for political conditions they bear no responsibility for.
And this isn’t just a U.S. problem. Nationals and residents of the U.K., Germany, France, Sweden, Belgium, Lebanon, Armenia, Canada and more have all been victims of so-called hostage diplomacy, in which they are held by foreign states for political gains.
State-sponsored hostage-taking is a truly global problem, and it requires a robust global solution. As a country deeply affected by hostage-taking, the U.S. should start by reassessing its hostage-taking prevention and accountability strategies. The Obama administration undertook a major study of U.S. hostage policy, which resulted in a stronger interagency framework to support families, including the creation of a special envoy for hostages at the State Department in 2015.
Under former President Donald Trump, hostage recovery efforts went through a major shake-up. Presidents both Republican and Democratic have long held to a “no-concessions” hostage policy, in which ransom payments and blackmail were considered off-limits for fear of encouraging more hostage-taking in the long term. Trump pushed the boundaries of that policy with prisoner swaps and handled recovery efforts with a more personal touch, as he himself welcomed hostages home with photo shoots in the Oval Office. While some hostages’ families applauded that visibility, other experts questioned whether the link would encourage hostile foreign governments to take more U.S. citizens hostage to leverage power and get a reaction from the president himself.
President Joe Biden has taken a more subdued approach, sending members of his administration to be the public faces handling hostage files. However, Trump’s disruption of decades of U.S. hostage policy warrants an assessment of what worked and what didn’t and which assumptions hold up under a data analysis. Regardless of a president’s personal style, the matter of hostage-taking should be elevated to a priority within the administration, and any successful strategies should be used more widely.
Hostage-taking needs to be recognized for what it is: a series of human rights violations in contravention of globally recognized rights. It isn’t just a political scuffle in which a series of hapless victims are collateral damage to big-power politics. Rather, foreign states that take hostages are violating their international obligations under human rights conventions like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which many hostage-taking states, including Russia, are parties to. These conventions proscribe unlawful and arbitrary detention, mandate due process guarantees and fair trial rights and prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
Legal redress should be pursued individually and collectively on all of these grounds to the fullest extent possible. Family members of detainees, or detainees themselves once they are freed, should petition international, regional and national courts and U.N. bodies. Zooming out from individual cases, the problem of global hostage-taking should also be legally addressed in the aggregate, as a pattern of state behavior, by international and national prosecutors who can charge these cases as crimes against humanity.
The U.S. and Canada allow victims of hostage-taking to sue states, but only if those states are included on lists of state sponsors of terrorism.
Unfortunately, options to hold states legally accountable are severely limited by long-standing principles of state immunity — which prohibit individuals from suing states. The U.S. and Canada allow victims of hostage-taking to sue states, but only if those states are included on lists of state sponsors of terrorism. European countries have no exception to state immunity for hostage-taking, not even one limited to specific states. Increased legal pathways to hold states accountable can have a deterrent effect, especially when money damages are involved.
The international community needs to enhance its coordination to bring this practice to an end. Last year, the Canadian government launched an initiative supported by 58 countries, including the U.S., to stop countries from detaining foreign citizens for diplomatic leverage. That declaration was legally nonbinding, but this example of solidarity should be followed up with more concrete, multilateral measures — including conventions, tribunals or other prevention and accountability mechanisms — to address the problem of hostage-taking in one global voice coupled with deterrent action.
Brittney Griner is in Russian detention and may be there for geopolitical gains wholly unrelated to any of her actions. Only when the world comes together to condemn the growing problem of state-sponsored hostage-taking and coordinate a legally binding and internationally recognized response will this negative trend come to an end.