Sunday, January 29, 2006

What is a hostage, anyway?

In the previous two posts on this topic, I reviewed current reports of US troops taking hostages in Iraq, and that international, US civil and US military law prohibit the taking of hostages. The question that comes up is, what is a hostage, anyway?

The basic definition is "a prisoner who is held by one party to insure that another party will meet specified terms." (Princeton WordNet) Simple enough, but for many of us, we tend to add some enhancements to this, thinking a hostage has to be under some kind of mortal threat, a gun to the head, for example. But this is not necessary.

In 1979, the International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages was agreed to, with the US as a signatory. It isn't very long, with the section relevant for us right at the start:

  1. Any person who seizes or detains and threatens to kill, to injure or to continue to detain another person (hereinafter referred to as the "hostage") in order to compel a third party, namely, a State, an international intergovernmental organization, a natural or juridical person, or a group of persons, to do or abstain from doing any act as an explicit or implicit condition for the release of the hostage commits the offence of taking of hostages ("hostage-taking") within the meaning of this Convention.
  2. Any person who:
    1. attempts to commit an act of hostage-taking, or
    2. participates as an accomplice of anyone who commits or attempts to commit an act of hostage-taking likewise commits an offence for the purposes of this Convention.
(again, emphasis mine)
This definition is applicable under US law -- it is specifically recognized in a variety of US statues, and in court cases such as the 2003 case Simpson vs. Lybia as the standard applicable in military and international cases.

Consider a few things about this definition.
  • It is only necessary to detain, and threaten to continue to detain someone. A threat of injury or death, to the hostage or someone else, is not necessary.
  • It is necessary that the intent of the detention is to influence a third party. It is not necessary for it to be the only intent.
  • The threat can either be explicit or implicit.
So, let's take another look at the cases from Iraq. In none of the cases is there any kind of threat of physical harm, but the extent or duration of detention is specifically kept uncertain -- these persons can be held until some condition is satisfied. In more than one case, the connection between the detention of the hostage, and the need to apprehend the hostage's relative has been explicit and specific. In one case, where we have emails released under court order, that connection was clearly present before the hostage was detained.

Is this proof? Well, we are working from press reports and should always remember that. These reports by themselves would not be enough to convict anyone. But, in my opinion, they are more than enough to provide cause for a serious investigation. There is no evidence of such an investigation, but there is the stong appearance of what may be a pattern of continuing behavior. That would indicate something more serious than just some junior officer exceeding his authority.

Well, besides irritating international lawyers and some bloggers, what is wrong, what is immoral about this? That's the topic of the next post.

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