Philippine National Police / Associated Press

Barbara Kay: When kidnapping is a risk, there are ways to prepare

A top commander of the Abu Sayyaf extremist group poses with comrades during training at their camp on Mindanao island in southern Philippines.

What is a government’s proper response to extortion when a human life hangs in the balance? The answer seems obvious to everyone who has no personal stake in the outcome: Don’t pay; to pay is to encourage the practice, and escalate the demands of ruthless outlaws. That is the policy of the Canadian government, and rightly so.

On Monday, making good on their threat when a ransom failed to materialize, Abu Sayyaf insurgents beheaded John Ridsdel, one of 22 foreign hostages from six countries the gang was holding in the impoverished province of Sulu, about 950 kilometres south of Manila. Militants on motorcycles then dumped a bag with Ridsdel’s head inside on the streets of Jolo town. Its discovery elicited grim condemnation from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for the “act of cold-blooded murder,” and a promise to work with international partners and the Phillipines government to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Kidnapping is an established industry for lawless groups as a means to defray costs in the execution of their nefarious activities, and will continue.

In online videos Ridsdel had been shown pleading for his life while a captor flashed a knife at his throat, before a menacing backdrop of black flags. So although the killing was a harsh disappointment, it was not unexpected, given Canada’s non-negotiation policy.

This is not the first time the Canadian government has been faced with such an agonizing choice. In 2009 two Canadian diplomats, Robert Fowler, then a United Nations special envoy to Niger and his assistant Louis Guay were captured and held hostage (either by an African branch of al Qaeda or, according to Niger’s president Mamadou Tandja, by a rebel group of Tuareg nomads; it’s murky) while they were travelling in Niger. They were held for 130 days before being freed. Prime Minister Stephen Harper credited Mali and Burkina Faso for negotiating his release and implied that although Canada had not paid a ransom for Fowler, it was possible that these other governments had.

Kidnapping is an established industry for lawless groups as a means to defray costs in the execution of their nefarious activities, and will continue. While ransoms are out of the question, that doesn’t mean governments shouldn’t pull out the stops on any and all other means of ending such impasses in a way that frees the hostage unharmed and yet leaves the captors room to save face and claim some modest victory. But the odds of failure, as just happened, will remain high. Thus, people who insist on, or whose business forces them to travel in such environments should not be fatalistic; they must be pro-active in taking anticipatory measures off their own bat.

One option is kidnap insurance. There are many corporations – notably mining companies and others whose workers must often travel and reside in insalubrious parts of the globe – that insure their representatives. Policy premiums fluctuate with the perceived risk level of the part of the world in which the potential hostage works or lives. According to an article in Forbes’ Magazine, some policies provide: a crisis response team and professional advice; medical expenses, including psychiatric expenses or plastic surgery for harm done in captivity; time away from work after release; travel expenses; and a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the kidnappers.

An insurance policy offers no guarantees that a hostage will be freed. But it certainly increases the odds, empowers families and ensures that loved ones don’t bankrupt themselves in a harrowing and tragic drama. Most of all, it levels the playing field for all hostages, whether or not they have connections, huge fortunes or plain dumb luck. Indeed, it might be wise for the government to insist that individuals travelling alone off the beaten track in high-risk places show proof of such a policy before departure.

National Post