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Opinion Hostage negotiations: There are no simple answers, just harsh dilemmas

Bob Rae teaches at the University of Toronto and is the author of What's Happened to Politics?

Both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion have kept their answers to questions about two captured Canadian citizens murdered by Abu Sayyaf terrorists short and simple: Canada does not pay ransom to terrorist kidnappers. It only feeds their appetites. The best way to fight this wave of violence is to say no.

It is hard to disagree with such direct, morally cogent arguments. The difficulty is that they miss another, equally compelling reality, which neither governments nor the media seem willing to discuss: The governments that say no know perfectly well that the families and friends of people kidnapped and held in various parts of the world will do whatever they can to achieve the release of their loved ones. Those same governments will, in fact, help the families make contact with skilled, professional advisers, as well as with various intermediaries who live in the shadowy world of kidnapping negotiations.

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This is what happens in the real world, and everyone in government, the military and business knows it. Governments will insist that any negotiation is wrong and immoral, but as the U.S. Congress had to allow recently, families will insist upon their right and obligation to help their loved ones, and no criminal penalties will follow the paying of a ransom.

The Canadian government was fully aware that the families of Robert Hall and John Ridsdel were desperately trying to raise money to free the men. The government did not sanction these efforts. Nor did it stop them, any more than it did the successful efforts to free Amanda Lindhout. The release of Robert Fowler and Louis Guay did not happen spontaneously, and their release remains shrouded in mystery. No Canadian politician complained about what happened or questioned the circumstances that led to their freedom.

The Abu Sayyaf kidnappings took place in the southern Philippines, where the writ of the central government simply does not run. The hostages were held in the middle of a war zone, and communication with the kidnappers was made very difficult by distance, the fighting and the dilemma of competing strategies and advice.

Deadlines and lines in the sand shift and turn. Families try desperately to assess what is needed, how to raise money, who and what to believe and how to navigate the shoals of duplicity and doubletalk from the kidnappers. Governments know all this is happening. The issue is not "Do we pay ransoms?" but "Who pays the ransoms?"

Even more complex are the shadowy intermediaries who claim to know the "real" ransom amount. In many cases. they are paid success fees, so the amounts raised by families have to be increased to meet the ever-changing financial targets. The pressures on the families are unimaginable.

My point in writing this is not to cast blame or to reveal deep, dark secrets. It is simply to encourage readers to go beyond the headlines to deal with the gritty realities of kidnappings that go completely ignored for months on end and are then covered in the news for just a few days. There are hundreds of people being held by hostage takers, terrorists and commercial kidnappers from Mexico to Russia, from Africa to Afghanistan. Their release depends on a complex, mysterious calculation about what strategies and deals might work. Different countries will adopt different strategies and will do what they can to help their citizens. Some do it more effectively than others. It is never easy.

This is the world in which Canada is working. As Tony Clement announces that the kidnappers should be "targeted" and "taken out" and the government reassures Canadians that the wrongdoers will be found and punished, we might ask: If it was that simple, why was it not done? The answer is that it is far from easy to enter into a guerrilla war in the jungles of the southern Philippines, and the military difficulties have not been erased by time or the recent election.

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Governing is never easy, and the choices are hard. But families are caught in a tragic web. The rest of us should judge less quickly – and admit that we too are trapped by these harsh dilemmas.

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