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International Relations

Cameron pressing G8 to halt ransom payments

Even if G8 nations agree to a British proposal to stop paying for the release of kidnapping victims, other groups will likely keep forking out ransoms to protect staff, security expert, Hans-Georg Ehrhart, tells DW.

In this photo taken Sunday, Sept. 23, 2012, masked Somali pirate Hassan stands near a Taiwanese fishing vessel that washed up on shore after the pirates were paid a ransom and released the crew, in the once-bustling pirate den of Hobyo, Somalia. The empty whisky bottles and overturned, sand-filled skiffs that litter this shoreline are signs that the heyday of Somali piracy may be over - most of the prostitutes are gone, the luxury cars repossessed, and pirates talk more about catching lobsters than seizing cargo ships. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)

Pirat Somalia

Deutsche Welle: British Prime Minister David Cameron has called for a measure prohibiting ransom payments to kidnappers. He has suggested that G8 nations agree to a common policy. Do you think his plan has any chance of success?

Hans-Georg Ehrhart: it could be successful because other G8 countries, such as the United States, have already followed this strategy for a long time. A few weeks ago, France drafted a resolution to stop ransom payments as it was dealing with kidnappings in Mali. Domestic concerns could be playing a role for Cameron. In reality, it is the case that even in countries like the United States, which do not officially make ransom payments, nothing can prevent non-state actors from paying ransoms. The question is, what's the point of the initiative. I could imagine that he can bring about a statement of principle. He'll be able to sell that at home, but the initiative won't bring any major changes.

What is the legal situation in Europe? Are there European Union rules, or are individual countries allowed to do as they see fit?

Hans-Georg Ehrhart Photo Copyright: IFSH, Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy

Companies will continue paying ransoms to protect staff, Ehrhart said

Every country acts in the manner they think is best - with very conflicting reasons and interests. There are humanitarian responsibilities to do something for the kidnapped person or people. There is also the state's responsibility to provide for the security of its citizens, which in some cases speaks in favor of paying ransoms. There is also a security interest in not supporting the business of kidnapping by paying ransoms and then continually being forced to pay again and again.

In Germany, the rule is that it is not discussed, but that a way is found to pay a ransom. In France, that used to be the case as well, but under President Francois Hollande that will not be the case anymore.

Now, British Prime Minister Cameron has issued the same guidelines. We'll have to wait and see how the other states react. It's basically a codex. If everyone were to agree to it, it still would not solve anything. Even if everyone sticks to it, there is no way of preventing others, non-state actors, from taking over the payments.

Would a wider approach work - one that included not only states, but also companies?

Then you would have to forbid companies from defending their employees' security by, among other things, paying a ransom. I believe that would meet with resistance from companies. If that were not the case, the companies would have difficulty operating in crisis regions.

Is threatening to leave a region - waters off the coast of Somalia, for example - one way companies can influence politicians?

It is not as problematic at sea, since most vessels have security personnel on board - at least those who can afford it. It is more problematic on land. Look at Nigeria, where, for example, a major German construction company does not allow its employees to leave a compound or only to leave in groups and guarded by well-armed security forces and when the trip has been pre-arranged. They are trying to protect themselves. I think the option of no longer operating or doing business in a region is not very attractive to private companies, which are in the business of making money. They will, I'm afraid, address things as they have - they'll take care of it privately.

Figures from British security authorities showed that 150 foreigners of various nationalities have been kidnapped by Islamist terror groups since 2008. Fifty of the kidnappings were in 2012, which is twice as many as the year before. Is there a way to explain that?

In my opinion, it is because there is a disintegrating line between organized crime and the area of politically motivated kidnapping. It is no longer so easy to distinguish between the two because the most diverse groups cooperate with each other when it comes to the business of kidnappings. That is particularly the case in the Sahel region where many different networks are active. Some are more interested in money while others are driven by ideology. They can mutually benefit from each other. One needs money for equipment and the others want to get even richer.

A concentrated effort by Europeans in the Atalanta Operation has helped lower the number of kidnappings in the waters off the coast of Somalia. Is that not a reason to reach the conclusion that more needs to be done than just saying, "We're not going to pay a ransom."?

As soon as things decreased in east Africa, they increased in the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean. There is a copycat effect. But, of course, a more encompassing approach is needed. Why do people do this? Who is behind it? And then, there are always the "root causes" that get named. What's needed are lasting political and societal changes. The social-political causes of these incidents are, in practice, not addressed in a long-term manner. Most of the time, it's just a short-term act that lasts a few years and then people move on to the next conflict until something similar happens again. What's missing for these states is a long-term approach to development policy.

Hans-Georg Ehrhart is a member of the management board and project manager at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy, an institute at the University of Hamburg.

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