The 180

OPINION: Why governments should be open to paying ransom

After a Canadian hostage was killed in the Philippines, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated his government's policy: Canada does not pay ransom to terrorists. It's a policy the United States and United Kingdom follow too. But Tom Keatinge says the issues is not that black-and-white.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canada 'does not and will not pay ransom to terrorists.' (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

"Canada does not and will not pay ransom to terrorists, directly or indirectly"

Prime Minister Trudeau said those words on Tuesday, after a Canadian hostage was killed by a militant group in the Philippines. The group had demanded a ransom, but it was not paid.

While there is debate over whether Canada has paid ransom in the past, it is most often argued by politicians and academics that countries should never pay, as it may entice more kidnapping in the future.

Trudeau and UK Prime Minister David Cameron plan to ask allies to make the same committment against paying ransoms.

There is another view, that countries like Canada, the UK, and the United States, should leave themselves some room to manoeuvre, and that an absolute opposition to negotiation and ransoms may be dangerous

"Simply saying 'we will not pay ransoms' closes the door immediately to any form of negotiation. And unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that countries that are willing to negotiate get their citizens home alive. And countries that are not, are less likely to get their citizens home alive.- Tom Keatinge, Royal United Services Institute

Tom Keatinge is Director of the Centre for Financial Crime & Security Studies at The Royal United Services Institute, a British defence policy think-tank. To him, there are so many costs involved in kidnapping, that a country's unwillingness to negotiate ignores financial realities.

The costs that groups run up in terms of feeding the hostages, in terms of favours... there are sometimes investors... the hostage takers run up debts. And so to say to a hostage taker they should give back the hostage, get nothing in return, and then sit there with these debts, is unrealistic.- Tom Keatinge

Keatinge also suggests there's an issue of morality to consider, rather than a pragmatic cost-benefit tradeoff. 

To what extent do citizens have a right to life, and is a country obligated to protect that right to life? There is a moral argument here that I think many people would have a difficult time arguing against. I think the moral argument is one that governments that don't pay ransom choose to ignore.- Tom Keatinge

Listen to the full interview by clicking the play button above.