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Buchanan: Paying for the Rescue of Western Martyrs

Paying for the Rescue of Western Martyrs *

By Paul G. Buchanan

Lost amid the drama of the Christian Peacemaker Team hostage taking and rescue in Iraq are two sub-plots of some import. One is psychological and the other is legal and fiscal.

On the psychological front is the mental disposition of the Christian Peacemaker hostages themselves. Although they are to be admired for the courage of their convictions and the fact that they actually engage in direct action rather than just talk, the CPT workers held captive in Iraq display traits remarkably akin to those of Islamic jihadists and Iraqi resistance fighters: self sacrifice for an ideological belief. This is not inherently bad. The CPT may well see themselves as helpers and facilitators for peace, but in going to Iraq against all reasoned advice, in the middle of a combined war of resistance against occupation and sectarian strife between primordial interests, they virtually assured themselves a brush with death. This is known as the martyr complex, although to be fair, perhaps these men were unwittingly exhibiting it.

This may be due to the fact that the activists involved, including a New Zealand resident Canadian, had previously undertaken missions in Palestine in opposition to the Israeli occupation. Perhaps they thought that Baghdad would be equivalent and the risk would be the same. They were wrong.

In Palestine foreign peacemakers operate amid a sympathetic population confronting a relatively “soft” occupation (such as it is). The Israeli government and Palestinian authorities are acutely conscious of the public relations value of Western civilian peacemakers, so both sides work hard to ensure the safety of those individuals as they go about the business of monitoring human rights violations and other infringements on freedoms of movement, speech and association. Israeli security forces, although complicit in a number of atrocities in Palestine, are by and large organized professionally, in a chain of command with strict procedures and authority channels for the use of force. This does not excuse the occupation or those instances where force has been employed wantonly, but it does ensure that in the main the use of force is relatively circumscribed and not directed at foreign peacemakers. Likewise, Palestinian security forces and other armed groups understand that NGOs like the Christian Peacemakers support their struggle against occupation, and in many instances are anti-Zionist in nature. This ensures that CPT members in Palestine have considerable immunity from violence, and least when it comes to violence being directed at them.

The situation in Iraq is very different. Failures of US post-invasion planning and conflicts between Iraqi political elites led to a security vacuum that has been filled by armed groups of various stripes, to include criminal as well as political organizations. With sectarian violence approaching civil war and with desperation levels amongst the population at a breaking point, fear and loathing of Westerners is at an all-time high, regardless of the motive that brings them to Iraq. For most Iraqis, the recipe for political stability lies in subtracting, not adding foreigners to the mix. Rather than seen as helpers and facilitators, non-Iraqis are perceived as interlopers and, increasingly, as easy sources of cash via kidnapping for ransom schemes. Such was the case with Mr. Snooden and his companions.

Some have commented that, in demanding that no force be used in securing their release and in not thanking their military rescuers and reportedly not cooperating with Coalition authorities (and Canadians) in the intelligence debriefing that followed their liberation, the hostages were not only exhibiting a martyr complex, but also the so-called “Stockholm Syndrome.” This is a situation where captives begin to sympathise with their captors as a result of their physical and emotional dependency on them. Much like desperate children in the face of abusive parents, they hope to win sympathy from the captors in order to escape punishment or save their lives. Over time this develops into a psychological condition whereby captives can no longer distinguish between friend and foe.

That is not what has happened in this instance for one simple reason: unlike most kidnap victims, Mr. Snooden and his mates were already sympathetic to their captors long before they were taken prisoner. Their mission in Iraq was to document Coalition violations of civil liberties, and they fully empathised with those who, by choice or constraint, employed kidnapping and extortion as a means of financial redress or political statement. In this instance the motive was cash, or at least something other than the original demands for release of all Iraqi prisoners held by Coalition forces.

Although under duress in captivity, the CPT hostages understood the position of their captors. Unfortunately for the American captive, Tom Fox, the US policy of not negotiating or paying ransom made him expendable, whereas the Canadian and British hostages had the benefit of governments working to secure their release via negotiations (or special forces counter-terrorism operations). If nothing else, extending the timeframe of negotiations allowed Coalition security teams to develop actionable intelligence on the hostage’s whereabouts regardless of the ransom terms being discussed. That came to fruition last week, but by then time had run out on Tom Fox.

Whether as part of a negotiated settlement or as a result of good intelligence work leading to military rescue, the remaining CPT hostages were freed. That brings up the second question: who should pay for the costs of the affair? The Christian Peacemakers admit that they had no contacts on the ground in Iraq with whom to negotiate. That left the job of contacting the kidnappers to the very governments—Canada in particular—which repeatedly warned them against travel to Iraq due to security concerns. It was Canada that led the negotiations for their release, expending much diplomatic time and effort to do so. It was Canada, the UK and other security partners (with rumors of New Zealand involvement) who eventually developed the intelligence leads that located the site in which they were being held, and it was these forces that effected the military raid to free them. All of this costs money along with human effort and time.

In this case four individuals (one now dead), aided and abetted by a non-governmental agency with an ideological agenda to pursue (admittedly a peaceful one), deliberately and consciously ignored official warnings from their respective governments not to enter a war zone. They were kidnapped, suffered the indignity of captivity, and were rescued or released due to the concerted efforts of those same governments. In most countries such as New Zealand, individuals who ignore official expert advice and engage in risky ventures that require their being saved are required to pay the costs of the rescue operation. Perhaps it is time to do the same in situations like this.

If so, governments might sue for the costs of the operation. Legislation could be passed the requires reimbursement for rescue or ransom for those who get in trouble while conducting unsanctioned activities in conflict zones with travel advisories in place. People would then have an additional deterrent to contemplate before embarking on such ventures. This would not constrain intrepid journalists and various humanitarian agencies, which presumably would have government or international agency sanction and reliable contacts on the ground. But it could deter would-be mercenaries and thrill-seekers as well as those with martyr complexes and solidarity ties to foreign causes. Otherwise such folk might be emboldened by the experience of these uncommonly lucky and seemingly unfazed peacemakers. After all, in places like Iraq everything comes with a price, but it is a matter of who will pay, and how, that should matter most for those inclined to disregard the dangers in traveling there.

*An abbreviated version of this essay appeared in the New Zealand Herald on March 28, 2006 under the title “Contrary Courage a costly venture.”


Paul G. Buchanan is the Director of the Working Group on Alternative Security Perspectives at the University of Auckland.

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