State sponsored kidnapping – what are the options?

Timo der Weduwen · Posted: October 13, 2020

Kidnap for ransom is as old as the world. Kidnapping has gained a novel dimension when nation states started sponsoring the crime. Through the centuries and spread across all regions of the world, people have taken and carried away other people, habitually, as part of war and peace protocols, for religious sacrifice, for military conscription, for domestic service or as part of an economic model to increase income or capital.

Treating human beings as a commodity, that can be owned, bought, sold, exploited, forced to work, procreate or fight, ritually sacrificed or just killed when no longer of use, is something that in the modern age has over the years grown to be the ultimate human rights violation. In jurisdictions all over the world, kidnap for ransom is understood as the dehumanizing crime that it is.

On 10 December 2018, Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were kidnapped by the Chinese Government, under the pretense of being arrested as foreign spies. Both have been detained since; they are isolated and without legal representation. The accusations against the two are not specified and nothing has been subjected yet to a due process of law.

Their case is linked with the case of Sabrina Meng Wanzhou, a senior executive of China’s largest telecommunications company Huawei. Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver on 1 December 2018, at the request of the United States of America, who accused Wanzhou of having breached sanctions against Iran.

There is a parallel with a case from 2014, when two Canadians, Julia and Kevin Garratt, were detained and accused of being foreign spies, as retaliation for the arrest of Chinese businessman Su Bin in Canada.

It is not too bold to state that China again has used Kovrig and Spavor’s arrest as an unflinching détournement de pouvoir, hidden behind a smoke screen of ‘national security’ and rickety espionage accusations. The Chinese strategy is clear. It’s one of ours, against two of yours. The Kovrig/Spavor arrests have left the Canadian government humiliated and impotent, similar to a family, who just received a call that a loved-one has been kidnapped by a criminal gang.

Kidnappings are extremely gruesome crimes that take a gargantuan toll on both the kidnapped person and the family. Responding to a kidnap for ransom incident is complex. The kidnappers use a skillful combination of demands, deadlines and threats to put pressure on a family, a business or a government, to get what they want. Luckily, there is some best practice collected over the years on how to manage a kidnap for ransom incident, and in the majority of the criminal cases, the kidnapped person is released and lives another day.

But what to do when a nation state is the perpetrator? What is best practice then?

In this world, international conflict is prevented by protocols, appropriate diplomatic interventions and conferences, and the risk that a nation state would openly act in defiance of all this effort was unthinkable. This changed in December 1979, with the first large scale state-sponsored hostage taking of US embassy personnel in Tehran, Iran. Since then, Iran and its proxies have honed state-sponsored kidnapping into a key foreign policy weapon, with business people, tourists, journalists, academics, information technology specialists and even travel vloggers among those who have been swept up in concocted espionage claims. Habitually, Iran accuses and convicts the arrested person of fabricated crimes against the state, to later gain concessions from their home countries. In some cases, it initiates a prisoner swap. Other arrests are tied to attempts to recover assets that have been frozen abroad. Sometimes it’s a combination of both. All in all, it’s a winning strategy. The base-line is, that Iran does not care about human rights, the Vienna Convention, or the freedom of speech or any other issues that in the Western mind are universal and undeniable rights. People are mere chips in the Iranian roulette of their tainted foreign policy strategy.

Other countries have closely observed and copied the practice of Iran and its proxies. State kidnapping of foreign nationals is now normal business in countries like North Korea, Venezuela, Syria and China. It is obvious that these countries also have a long experience with enforced disappearance of their citizens. Kidnapping foreigners is child play compared to that.

Back to Kovrig and Spavor: The Canadian diplomatic attempts to get them free have failed so far. Whatever the strategy of the Canadian government has been, it has been unsuccessful. Fair enough, the odds seem always in the favor of the kidnappers; they have control, because they have the person. In state sponsored kidnappings it is not different.

What has happened so far to get Kovrig and Spavor free? In the media, the official positions are repeated, and repeated, and repeated. Canada claims that Kovrig and Spavor are innocent, China claims that they are spies and have broken unnumerable Chinese laws. Both Canada and China know that these exchanges are all for show.

Lately, China has been flexing its muscles in the international arena as part of fulfilling their dream that envisages China as a world power, and uses as preferred tactic the combination of ‘putting facts on the ground’, in-your-face intimidation and subsequent public denial of any wrongdoing. Canada appears to have been searching for an effective reaction to China’s bullying, and have so far flipped between uttering hard words and almost apologetic appeasement.

In the case of Kovrig and Spavor, consular visits are made, and consular visits are cancelled. Providing consular support is written in the civilized world playbook. It doesn’t have any value in the playbook of a state sponsored kidnap. Evidently, consular visits are a crucial life line for the detained and something to give them hope, but it is not a resolution strategy.

As a more covert approach, we can imagine a Canadian and a Chinese diplomat meeting secretly for a coffee on the side of a UN Conference in Geneva or New York, away from the scrutiny of the media.  Most likely, this will result in a friendly exchange of positions with no concessions by both parties.

A third approach, which builds upon mediation by a trusted third party, appears currently out of reach. China has antagonized many of its neighbors and trading partners with its aggressive foreign policy and its blatant disrespect for minorities and human rights, and may have many clients, but also a serious lack of allies. Even the ‘friendship’ between the Russia and China seems to be no more than a tactical coalition to annoy the USA.

So, what to do?

In a kidnap for ransom incident there are four options:  to walk away and don’t bother, to wait for the kidnappers to let the hostage go, to negotiate a settlement or to attempt a rescue.

In a state sponsored kidnap like the Kovrig/Spavor case, doing nothing is not an option. A government loses its legitimacy when it gives up on its citizens. Waiting for China to make a move is not smart. We know what will happen next when China wants to up the ante. Kovrig and Spavor will be put on a show trial and convicted to life sentences. Evidently, a rescue attempt is out of the order, as long as we don’t live in a fantasy James Bond world.

The only option is to engage. It is therefore time to re-think the government’s negotiation strategy.

In kidnap for ransom incident management, families and businesses that are victimized are often in search of a strategy. Having a strategy can help lessen the sense of despair and helplessness and focus the energy on the resolution.

Governments also have strategies. Most strategies move around the opaque notion of ‘national security’ and firmly believed principles about ‘not negotiating with terrorists’ and ‘bringing perpetrators to justice’. Luckily for the families involved, some governments see it as their overriding concern to protect their nationals from future kidnappings and put in place some kind of deterrence strategy as a warning to future kidnappers, with the clear message that ‘the price you will pay is higher than any benefit you think will follow from taking one of ours’.

Other countries have a quite different strategy, which is never openly discussed, but still, for shrewd observers clear to see. This strategy chooses as priority ‘the humanity’ of the kidnapped person, and puts the whole spectrum (and resources) of the State at the disposal of a resolution, with one aim only: to bring their citizen back.

Perhaps a combination of the ‘deterrence’ strategy and the ‘humanity’ strategy may be an option for the Canadian government, for now and in the future.  This new strategy can be built around the following statements:

  • ‘We will bring our citizens home, no matter what’
  • ‘This must never happen to a Canadian again’
  • ‘A nation state acting like that, is not our friend’
  • ‘This is about power, not about legitimate accusations’
  • ‘There can be no benefit for another nation state by pursuing this kind of action’

Critics will say: “but what about the 44 billion CAD of stuff we buy from China each year?” or  “we want 5G, and we cannot do it without Huawei technology”, or ‘We are Canada, and we are just a small country” or “What about our business with China?”. These are all fair questions, but fortunately, they have nothing to do with the strategy of keeping Canadians out of harm’s way. It is time to take a position and leave the schizophrenic approach of swaying between economic dependencies and ineffectual protesting behind. A strategy only becomes powerful when it is based on core values, or better said, on an identity. Whatever our interests, we can agree that the identity of Canada is not the one of a client-state.

By thinking the strategy and these five priorities through, logical actions can be formulated and a path of direct engagement with the Chinese authorities can be designed. The new introduction will be: ‘we know what you are trying to do, and we will have none of it. Let our people go, or you will jeopardize our relationship for years to come.’ Based on this inner strength, real negotiations will follow. This strategy will probably receive support from the families of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, and it may well count on the approval of all conscientious Canadians.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Professional Development Institute of the University of Ottawa.


Timo der Weduwen is an international negotiation expert and former UN senior security official. He is senior partner with InterVentis Global and a member of the Canada-based Critical Risk Team. He is the director of the accredited Kidnap for Ransom Incident Management (KRIM) eLearning Programme that will be open to selected government, UN and INGO officials in January 2021.

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