President Biden just declared the hostage-taking and wrongful detention of American nationals abroad by foreign governments a national emergency, confirming what those of us who follow the issue closely already knew. But it’s still a step in the right direction: The problem has been getting worse, and until now, we have been failing to adequately combat it.
Biden signed an executive order Tuesday morning declaring that the hostage-taking and the wrongful detention of U.S. nationals abroad “constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.” His order significantly expands the U.S. government’s ability to target hostage-takers and their assets, along with individuals who are complicit in such activities. It provides guidance to government agencies on how they should coordinate efforts at the interagency level, and on sharing information with the families of current hostages and wrongful detainees. This last point has long been a contentious issue for families who have felt uninformed about the fates of their loved ones and efforts to secure their release.
The executive order also creates a travel advisory category for the risk of wrongful detention in several countries. In doing so, the government recognizes hostage-taking by states as a form of leverage is a recurrent and pernicious crime. But will this executive order lead to the release of the more than 40 Americans currently held hostage or wrongfully detained by foreign governments? No. Nor will it end these practices.
What it represents, though, is an important — if incremental step — in the government’s slow response to a dangerous, and worsening, challenge. An aggressive policy that involves stakeholders in and out of the government is our best chance to push back on what has become a favored foreign policy tool of authoritarian regimes.
The Biden administration understood coming in that the wrongful detention and hostage-taking of Americans abroad was a growing menace, but with so many other fires to put out, the issue was not a priority. Or at least it has rarely seemed like one.
Yet two developments in recent months have given the threats new urgency. The first is a groundbreaking effort led by the loved ones of Americans currently being detained by different governments around the world. The Bring Our Families Home campaign has organized demonstrations in front of the White House, held news conferences and this week will unveil a large-scale mural in Georgetown with the faces of 18 current American hostages, including D.C. resident Emad Shargi.
While each family is still pleading for their own relatives, the campaign has made their efforts more cooperative. That is helping to make the issue of wrongful detention easier for ordinary Americans to empathize with and harder for the administration to ignore.
But undoubtedly the biggest event that has put the problem on the national agenda is the five-month-long detention of WNBA superstar Brittney Griner. Some argue that Griner’s case isn’t receiving enough attention because she’s a Black lesbian. In any case, her detention shows very clearly that state hostage-taking is not a race or partisan issue.
In a letter to Biden, Griner used her platform to speak for those in her deeply unjust situation. She asked for Biden’s commitment to bring her and all other wrongfully detained Americans home. Griner is the giant that the community of wrongful detainees and their supporters needs right now — but, of course, I wish she hadn’t been forced into that role.
As a hostage survivor and the subject of a high-profile campaign for my release, I understand the incredible burden placed on those fighting to get the U.S. government to work on their behalf. What I understood was that, while the detention is rarely personal, the impact it has on family members and entire communities is profoundly devastating. By declaring wrongful detention and hostage-taking an urgent national priority, Biden made an important commitment to listen and stand with those who, while deeply affected, continue to fight for the freedom and well-being of their loved ones.