Deux femmes responsables de matériel MSF en Iran

MSF and kidnappings - the secrets and the dilemmas

Fabrice Weissman

Graduated from the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, Fabrice Weissman joined MSF in 1995. He spent several years as logistician and head of mission in Sub-Saharian Africa (Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, etc.), Kosovo, Sri Lanka and more recently Syria. He has published several articles and books on humanitarian action, including "In the Shadow of Just Wars. Violence, Politics and Humanitarian Action" (ed., London, Hurst & Co., 2004), "Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed. The MSF Experience" (ed., Oxford University Press, 2011) and "Saving Lives and Staying Alive. Humanitarian Security in the Age of Risk Management" (ed., London, Hurst & Co, 2016).

On the 31st January, a symposium was held at Sciences Po in support of Fariba Adelkhah and Roland Marchal, researchers at Sciences Po's Center for International Research (CERI) who were arrested in Iran on June 5, 2019. Roland Marchal was released on 20th March 2020 in exchange for an Iranian engineer detained in France. On 6th May Fariba Adelkhah was sentenced to 6 years imprisonment for "propaganda against the political system of the Islamic Republic, and collusion to undermine national security". The researcher was offered conditional release on condition that she terminates her research, but she refused.  The blog for her Support Committee is available here

The symposium brought together diplomats, journalists, humanitarians and researchers, with the aim of "nourishing reflection about prisoners and hostages, from a political, legal and ethical point of view". Fabrice Weissman presented the experience of Médecins Sans Frontières in the face of kidnappings.  

The cases

Kidnappings are one of the most serious risks incurred by teams working for humanitarian associations. Paradoxically, they are more feared than homicides, due to their long duration. However, the circumstances of kidnappings and their resolution are generally little known by the general public or even by the vast majority of humanitarian workers because of the secrecy maintained by the organizations involved.

Since 1980, MSF has documented approximately 100 cases of either arbitrary detention by state authorities (51 cases) or kidnapping by political or criminal groups (64 cases), half of which involved international personnel. 

Until the war in Chechnya in the mid-1990s the vast majority of abductions of MSF personnel, however distressing, did not exceed a few days or weeks. Most were linked to intimidation by governments hostile to MSF’s presence, or to the desire of certain armed movements to make themselves known or to seize bargaining chips during peaks of political or military tension. 

For MSF, Chechnya ushered in an era of long-term kidnappings, often associated with mistreatment and with long and difficult negotiations to obtain the safe return of captives. During the two wars in Chechnya, MSF suffered about fifteen kidnappings, four of which were of very long duration. 

The kidnapping of Christophe André in Ingushetia in 1997 and his escape after 111 days of captivity is documented in a graphic novel (Guy Delisle, S'Enfuir : Récit d'un otage, Dargaud, 2016)that gives a chilling insight into the hostage's condition and the strategies of psychological resitance he developed until his escape. The 2002 kidnapping of Arjan Erkel, head of mission for MSF Switzerland in Dagestan, a small republic in the Russian Caucasus, was another significant event for MSF. He was detained for 610 days and only released following a public advocacy campaign denouncing the responsibility of Russian parliamentarians and Dutch diplomats for his prolonged detention. This campaign raised many controversies within MSF, as well as tensions with the family of Erkel and with the Dutch government that were opposed to a strategy of using the media.

Following Erkel's release, the Dutch government took MSF to a Swiss commercial court, demanding repayment of the ransom it claimed to have paid on our behalf. Somewhat surprisingly, the court declared itself competent to deal with a case of human trafficking, and ordered MSF to reimburse half of the ransom.
In Chechnya MSF also discovered the "shadow theater of kidnapping": an impossibility to know who is pulling the strings and the close or even symbiotic relationship between security services and organized crime. It is difficult to draw a clear line between "criminal” and “political” kidnappings. The abduction of Arjan Erkel was settled by a commercial transaction, yet it resembles more an act of political repression by the Russian authorities against humanitarian organizations that had highlighted the brutality of the Kremlin's counter-insurgency policy. The FSB, the Russian state security service that succeeded the KGB, was present at all stages of the affair: from the kidnapping - which two agents that had been shadowing Arjan witnessed without reaction (claiming that they were unarmed), through to the liberation - which was negotiated by an association of FSB veterans. 

The Erkel case also showed us that consular protection (a state's responsibility to defend and protect its nationals abroad) takes variable form depending on national interests. In this case, the Dutch government was far more concerned with preserving its relations and strategic and commercial interests with Russia than with defending its kidnapped citizen.

Since Chechnya, MSF has suffered other long-term kidnappings, notably in Colombia where an international volunteer was abducted in 2000 by ELN guerrillas for 6 months before being released unconditionally after pressure from FARC and Venezuela. 
In 2011, two colleagues of MSF Spain were kidnapped in Northern Kenya then held in Somalia for almost two years in extremely harsh conditions, which were hardened after a failed escape attempt. 
In the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2013, four Congolese employees of MSF France were abducted during an attack by the ADF group on the town of Kamongo. One of the victims managed to escape after 413 days of detention during an offensive by the DRC armed forces. There is still no news of the other three. One Congolese member of the MSF crisis cell was sentenced to 10 years in prison for national security offences related to his activities in trying to contact the kidnappers. 
In Syria in January 2014, 5 expatriates of MSF Belgium were abducted by the Islamic State. Detained in appalling conditions in the company of other Western hostages, all were eventually released, the last two after 132 days of captivity. Some of their co-detainees were killed by their IS captors, and others by the forces of the international coalition - notably Kayla Mueller, a young American aid worker abducted from an MSF car that was taking her to bus station in northern Syria, and most probably killed during an American air force bombing. These tragic events caused major disputes within the MSF association between advocates of total blackout on the kidnappings and their resolution and those that supported minimal transparency about the violence and extortion attempts carried out against our teams by the Islamic State. 

More recently, in 2018, 4 members of MSF were arrested by a militia in Syrian Kurdistan and transferred to state prisons in Damascus, from where they were finally released after 169 days of detention, following secret negotiations. 

How does MSF deal with these situations?

Faced with a kidnapping, several institutions or entities have, to varying degrees, the responsibility to assist the hostages: local authorities, governments, families, employers. In our experience, families are generally powerless; they do not have the logistical, human or financial means to make the necessary efforts to obtain the release of their loved ones. The priority of local authorities and foreign governments is rarely to obtain the safe release of the hostages, as other internal, national security or foreign policy issues may come into play (as illustrated by the Erkel case). 

In most cases therefore, MSF chooses to take the lead, meaning we must then be accountable to families and States for any actions taken. Occasionally we feel that other institutions are better placed to obtain the release of our colleagues: this may be the hostage’s family (as in Pakistan when a staff member belonging to an influential family was kidnapped), the State, the Church (in Sierra Leone in 1998, a team kidnapped by the RUF rebellion was released following the mediation of a bishop), etc. 

The way we organize ourselves to manage these cases is not fundamentally different from the way we manage emergency operations: we set-up a crisis cell at headquarters, with counterparts in the field, bringing together different specialists (people who know the context, people with experience of similar situations, communication officers, human resources officers, etc.). However, this crisis mechanism has a singular mission: to obtain the release of our colleagues unharmed. Unlike other institutions, we place the interest of the hostages above all other considerations, meaning that we do not consider the preservation of our activities in the country as a priority.

The Ransom Payment Dilemma

Rescuing abducted colleagues requires creating relationships with criminals and following some of their instructions. Among the questions that arise for the crisis cell and the directors of NGOs is: should we give in to a ransom demand? 

The payment of a ransom poses a number of problems and risks. Firstly, it raises an ethical problem, since it amounts to the diversion of money intended for populations in distress towards criminal groups that are often the source of violence against the very populations we are trying to assist. 

The payment of ransoms also poses a legal and perception risk, in the sense that these transfers of funds could be considered as material support to groups declared "terrorist" or "criminal" by certain States, who might then choose to initiate criminal proceedings against us. As of today, this risk is above all theoretical. No government has yet sued an NGO for paying money in exchange for the life of one of its employees. The only lawsuit brought against MSF was seeking reimbursement of the ransom that the Dutch government says it paid in the Erkel case. There is in fact a certain tolerance on the part of governments, as long as the situation remains discreet. In France and Colombia, courts of justice hold that the criminal nature of ransom payments is invalidated by the states of constraint and necessity in which a family, for example, finds itself trying to save the life of one of its members. Nevertheless, fear of prosecution remains very strong among NGOs, particularly those that depend on institutional donors for funding.

The last risk is operational: "popular wisdom" in the aid sector holds that paying a ransom increases the risk of future kidnappings. Hostage-takers will be all the more inclined to repeat their offences the more crime pays. Based on this reasoning, some organizations or governments have a policy of never negotiating or at least never paying, hoping that this will deter political-criminal organizations from attacking their employees or nationals. This assumption is, however, contradicted by the facts. The few studies carried out on kidnappings by jihadist organizations in the Sahel and the Middle East show that nationals of countries whose policy is not to negotiate are no less targeted than others. On the other hand, the chances of survival of these hostages are much lower. As tragically illustrated in Syria and in the Sahel, hostages who cannot be traded are executed in order to serve the terror strategy of the groups holding them. 

The ethical, legal and operational drawbacks of ransom payments explain why MSF favors the resolution of kidnappings through political pressure, in contrast to the advice of the private security companies used by many organizations in hostage-taking situations, who favor commercial transactions that they believe are simpler to manage. However, when we find ourselves at the point where a commercial transaction becomes the sole option, this route can be taken if it appears to be the only way to rescue our colleagues. The existence of possible financial (or other) exchanges is not publicized, so as not to provoke States that officially condemn these practices and to preserve, for other groups likely to attack our colleagues, a degree of uncertainty about our ways of acting. 

The dilemma of transparency 

The norm in humanitarian and security circles is to maintain absolute silence on any kidnapping case. Public communication is presented as a major danger: during ongoing cases, it could raise the stakes and prolong negotiations. Once a case is resolved, publicity could expose the employer (or negotiator) to legal, image and security risks. 

This is not the experience of the French section of MSF. In order to settle ongoing cases, communication can sometimes be a key element: raising the stakes also means encouraging the kidnappers to keep hostages alive and putting pressure on States and other authorities likely to promote their release. This is what CERI is doing today for Roland Marchal and Fariba Adelkhah. There is no general rule. In certain circumstances, at certain times, silence about ongoing cases seems to be the best attitude. At other times, in other circumstances, the use of media and politicization may be a critical resource.

Once colleagues are released, a minimum level of transparency is required. We don’t believe that a total blackout on hostage negotiations nor the systematic refusal to negotiate will stop potential kidnappers from targeting our members.  The first mitigation measure is to limit or halt the deployment of MSF members in high risk areas, which implies being aware of the frequency of kidnappings in a given territory. This knowledge of past cases is also necessary to enable volunteers going on a mission to make an informed choice about the risks they are willing to take. Without being overly deluded, one can also hope to fight against kidnappings by increasing their social and political cost: MSF members should become a “thorny target”, a source of trouble for potential kidnappers or any authorities tolerating or facilitating their deeds. Finally, humanitarian organizations will fight all the better against this crime if they are able to share experiences about the best ways to prevent and manage kidnapping.

All this requires a minimum level of transparency. However, it is unlikely to happen as fear and anguish continue to plague humanitarian organizations long after their colleagues have been released.

To cite this content :
Fabrice Weissman, “MSF and kidnappings - the secrets and the dilemmas”, 18 septembre 2020, URL :

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