In St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis welcomes a Colombian nun, just released after a captivity of several years in Mali, in the hands of jihadists. The scene, on October 10, 2021, is touching. But how was sister Gloria Cecilia Narvaez snatched from her captors? One clue to the question no one asks will come from a man most people can’t take their word for. During his sulphurous trial, Cardinal Becciu, a former substitute for the Secretariat of State accused of corruption, affirms that the Holy See would have paid around one million euros, and that the pope knew about it.
True or false ? Becciu’s assertion is plausible. For a very long time, Catholic institutions have mobilized to free captives, especially those who were kidnapped by Barbary pirates from the Maghreb. Redemptive orders like the Trinitarians or the Mercedarians were even created for this. There is therefore a centuries-old practice of hostage redemption.
The habit of delicate situations
Then, the diplomacy of the Holy See is used to delicate situations. The popes claim to speak to everyone and their diplomats have their entrances almost everywhere. Their services are called upon for their know-how, especially in the area of kidnappings. The information gleaned from recent news attests to this. Thus, in September 2002, Roger Carstens made a stopover at the Vatican; he is Joe Biden’s special envoy for kidnapping cases. Similarly, in January, the Israeli government asked Rome to help it release Avera Mengistu, detained by Hamas in Gaza since 2014. Just before Christmas, the latter’s family had been received by the Pope.
Finally, it should be added that kidnappings of priests or nuns are commonplace, from the Middle East to Latin America via Africa. And that a large number end up, very fortunately, with a release. However, except in exceptional cases, no release without ransom. Whether mafia, terrorists, vaguely political or half villainous, half ideological, kidnappings function like a market. Unless you intervene in commando mode, you have to pay.
give in to blackmail
But is a rescue that involves giving in to blackmail moral? In a very solidly argued book, The Ransom of Terror (PUF), a specialist in the ethics of war, Étienne Dignat, clearly recalls the dilemma that arises for States when one of their nationals is kidnapped. It is simple but inextricable: “Pay a ransom to rescue or stand firm against terrorism. Whether they are nuns or priests, soldiers, businessmen or tourists does not substantially change the situation. There are only two possible approaches, both debatable.
The first solution is “ethics”. If “the human person is an end in itself, he has absolute dignity”. We have to save the hostage no matter what. This is, unofficially, the practice of France, Spain, Italy or Germany, which favor what Etienne Dignat calls a “solidarity” vision.
A new approach
The second, described as “consequentialism”, focuses on the consequences of a possible intervention. It is feared that “the payments generate an incentive to increase kidnappings and strengthen terrorist organizations”. Americans and British therefore opt for a “sacrificial approach which leads most of the time to the death of the hostage”. She, too, is raising the stakes, through “media executions” that “increase fear”, such as the horrific beheading of James Foley by the Islamic State.
How to get out? Precise, methodical and pedagogical, Étienne Dignat offers a third way. He calls it the “responsibilizing approach” and devotes the last and most innovative part of his book to it. For him, abductions are not in themselves affairs of state, nor even the business of states or matters in which states are most efficient. In reality, if governments want to make it a sovereign prerogative, it is to demonstrate or restore their contested authority, not for the sake of efficiency.
The Church Square
When governments get involved, kidnappers may expect to reap “more money and more than money” in the form of political concessions, or attempt to extort more by disguising villainous operations as terrorism. It is therefore a question of “depoliticizing” kidnappings in order to “partly dry up the terrorist market”. States, he argues, have a “negative responsibility” to stop intervening in negotiations. They must learn to “delegate”. We no longer prohibit the payment of ransoms, nor do we deny it, we regulate it, as the subtitle indicates, “governing the hostage market”.
According to this logic, “companies, individuals or insurance companies are positioned in the front line for the benefit of an outsourced practice of concessions”. The insurance logic, already tested by large companies, includes a prevention component and another for disaster management. The state, of course, retains its responsibility for regulation and above all for tracking down criminals. NGOs can also be approved, in particular to protect vulnerable people who do not have behind them a multinational capable of taking out an anti-kidnapping insurance policy. Étienne Dignat’s approach claims to be “liberal”, which in France often seems like a dirty word. But basically, didn’t the redemptive orders of yesteryear play this role of expert, discreet and pragmatic mediators?
Leave a Reply