Hostage diplomacy, also hostage-diplomacy,[1] is the taking of hostages for diplomatic purposes. While common in the ancient world in modern diplomacy it is a controversial practice. Modern countries regarded as having engaged in hostage diplomacy include China, Turkey, Iran, North Korea, and Russia.

Background and overview

See also: Hostage § Historical practices

The custom of taking hostages was an integral part of foreign relations in the ancient world. This long history of political and military use indicates that political authorities or generals would legally agree to hand over one or usually several hostages in the custody of the other side, as guarantee of good faith in the observance of obligations. These obligations would be in the form of signing of a peace treaty, in the hands of the victor, or even exchange hostages as mutual assurance in cases such as an armistice.[2]

In ancient China, during the period of Eastern Zhou, vassal states would exchange hostages to ensure mutual trust. Such a hostage was known as zhìzǐ (質子, "hostage son"), who was usually a prince of the ruling house. During the Han dynasty, taking unilateral hostages consisting of zhìzǐ was a standard practice for the centralized monarchy to control smaller states.[3] Some Chinese classic texts, however, were against the hostage system.[3] On the famous exchange of hostages between Zhou and Zheng (周鄭交質), the Zuo zhuan criticized the incidence:

If there be not good faith in the heart, hostages are of no use. If parties act with intelligence and with mutual consideration, their actions under the rule of propriety, although there be no exchange of hostages, they cannot be alienated. (信不由中,質無益也,明恕而行,要之以禮,雖無有質,誰能間之)[4]

The Romans were also accustomed to taking the sons of tributary princes and educating them in Rome, thus holding a guarantee for the continued loyalty of the conquered nation and also instilling a possible future ruler with Roman ideology. This practice was also adopted in the early period of the British occupation of India, and by France in relations with Arab nations in North Africa.[5]

In contemporary times, hostage diplomacy is the taking of hostages for diplomatic purposes.[6] It has a negative connotation, associated with criminal hostage-taking, and often manifests as foreigners being arrested on trumped-up charges. The diplomatic hostages are then held as bargaining chips.[7]

Modern examples


According to The Guardian, China has a track record of hostage diplomacy but has repeatedly denied engaging in the practice.[7] From 1967 to 1969, the Chinese Communist Party kept two dozen British diplomats and civilians as de facto hostages. The British were able to effect the release of their personnel by decoupling the hostage situation from broader political and economic issues through protracted negotiation.[6]

It is widely believed that China detained two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, in response to the arrest of Meng Wanzhou.[8][9][10] In 2019, Australian Yang Hengjun's detention was also linked to a renewed effort at hostage diplomacy in response to the arrest of Meng Wanzhou. Prior to Hengjun's detention, the Australian government had sharply criticized the Chinese government for detaining the two Canadians.[11][12][13] The 2020 arrest of the Australian news anchor Cheng Lei has been viewed as a possible incidence of hostage diplomacy.[14] The February 2019 exit ban placed on Irish citizen Richard O'Halloran has also been considered a case of hostage diplomacy.[15]

The Lowy Institute has concluded that China's use of hostage diplomacy, among other things, undermines their "peaceful rise" narrative.[16] The Taiwanese government has expressed concerns that the Hong Kong national security law will be used to facilitate further Chinese hostage diplomacy.[17] According to Taiwan News in 2020 China began practicing hostage diplomacy towards Taiwan, a target against which it hadn't been used for some time.[18]

On 15 February 2021, 58 countries including Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States formed a coalition led by Canada, signed a non-binding declaration, and condemned the arbitrary detention of foreign nationals for diplomatic leverage. While China was not officially called out, Canadian and American officials said that China had been the subject of the statement. The Canadian foreign ministry said it was not targeting a single nation but was bringing diplomatic pressure on the issue. Shortly after, China's embassy in Canada released an article published by the Chinese Communist Party-owned tabloid Global Times, which dismissed the coalition's efforts as an "aggressive and ill-considered attack designed to provoke China".[19][20][21]

In September 2021, following the release of Meng Wanzhou, the two Canadians held in China as well as two Americans held in China whose detentions were suspected of being linked to hostage diplomacy over Meng Wanzhou's court case were freed.[22]

China is also known to have detained American citizens including Mark Swidan, Alice Lin, and Kai Li.[23] The detentions of Swidan and Li have been ruled arbitrary by an independent group of human rights experts at the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.[24][25]


According to Eric Edelman and Aykan Erdemir of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, hostage diplomacy has been widely used by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.[26] The case of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor working in Turkey who was imprisoned in 2016, has been widely referred to as a case of diplomatic hostage taking.[27]


Further information: List of foreign nationals detained in Iran

Modern Iranian hostage diplomacy began soon after the Iranian revolution with the Iran hostage crisis.[28]

Iran's government has used hostage diplomacy as a key diplomatic tool. Hostages have included, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Jolie King, Kylie Moore-Gilbert, Morad Tahbaz, Kamal Foroughi, Aras Amiri, Kameel Ahmady, and Anousheh Ashouri.[29]

In late-September 2019, when questioned about the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani compared the imprisonment of foreigners in Iran to the imprisonment of Iranians in Western countries—saying that leaders on both sides were denying power over the decisions of their own judiciary, and that "we must all" exert "a constant, concerted effort... so... all prisoners must be free... but it must be a path that travels both ways."[30]

As of 2022 Iran held 20 to 40 foreigners.[31]

North Korea

Further information: List of foreign nationals detained in North Korea

North Korea has made wide use of hostage diplomacy as a tool against the US, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia and various European nations.[32][33][34] Those held hostage are often tourists or exchange students who are either charged with minor offenses or espionage.[35] In recent years it has been speculated that the regime of Kim Jong-un had evolved from using hostages to gain leverage to using hostages as human shields to protect against a feared American intervention.[36] The case of Otto Warmbier, which ended in Warmbier's death soon after his release, is a particularly well known example of North Korean hostage diplomacy.[32][33]


Further information: Viktor Bout–Brittney Griner prisoner exchange

Russia has been accused of hostage diplomacy in the cases of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, and has exchanged prisoners with the United States in the past.[37][38]

See also


  1. ^ Osofsky, Hari M. (1998). "Understanding "Hostage-Diplomacy": e Release of Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan". Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal. 1 (1): 143–147. Archived from the original on 18 December 2015. Retrieved 16 December 2019.
  2. ^ Umeå University, SE; Olsson, Stefan (16 December 2019). The Hostages of the Northmen: From the Viking Age to the Middle Ages. Stockholm University Press. doi:10.16993/bba.a. ISBN 978-91-7635-107-9. S2CID 208652166.
  3. ^ a b Yang, Lien-sheng (1952). "Hostages in Chinese History". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. 15 (3/4). JSTOR: 507–521. doi:10.2307/2718238. ISSN 0073-0548. JSTOR 2718238.
  4. ^ "春秋左氏傳/隱公". Wikisource (in Chinese). 20 January 2006. Retrieved 16 February 2021.
  5. ^  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Hostage". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 13 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 801–802.
  6. ^ a b Mark, Chi-Kwan (2009). "Hostage Diplomacy: Britain, China, and the Politics of Negotiation, 1967–1969". Diplomacy & Statecraft. 20 (3): 473–493. doi:10.1080/09592290903293803. S2CID 154979218.
  7. ^ a b Davidson, Helen (5 September 2020). "foreign policy 'Tit-for-tat': China's detention of Australian Cheng Lei is ringing alarm bells". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 3 October 2020. Retrieved 12 October 2020.
  8. ^ Fullerton, Jamie (8 December 2019). "Canadians mark one year in Chinese detention as 'diplomatic hostages'". The Daily Telegraph. United Kingdom. Archived from the original on 25 December 2019. Retrieved 21 January 2020.
  9. ^ Ong, Lynette. "China Is Shooting Itself in the Foot Over Huawei". Foreign Policy. Archived from the original on 16 December 2019. Retrieved 16 December 2019.
  10. ^ Kuo, Lily (15 January 2019). "'Hostage' diplomacy: Canadian's death sentence in China sets worrying tone, experts say". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 16 January 2020. Retrieved 16 December 2019.
  11. ^ Medcalf, Rory. "Arrest of Yang Hengjun drags Australia into China's hostage diplomacy". Australian National University. Archived from the original on 16 December 2019. Retrieved 16 December 2019.
  12. ^ Dixon, Robyn (24 January 2019). "China's arrest of Australian writer is called 'hostage diplomacy'". Los Angeles Times. Beijing. Archived from the original on 16 December 2019. Retrieved 16 December 2019.
  13. ^ Panda, Ankit. "China's 'Hostage Diplomacy' Cannot Be Allowed to Stand". The Diplomat. Archived from the original on 17 December 2019. Retrieved 16 December 2019.
  14. ^ "'Tit-for-tat': China's detention of Australian Cheng Lei is ringing alarm bells". The Guardian. 5 September 2020. Archived from the original on 7 September 2020. Retrieved 8 September 2020.
  15. ^ "'This could go on and on': Irishman held in China". Raidió Teilifís Éireann. 18 February 2021. Retrieved 19 February 2021.
  16. ^ MICHAEL J. MAZARR, ALI WYNE and. "The real US–China competition: Competing theories of influence". The real US–China competition: Competing theories of influence. The Lowy Institute. Archived from the original on 4 February 2020. Retrieved 4 February 2020.
  17. ^ "Taiwan fears China 'hostage diplomacy' through Hong Kong security law". Channel NewsAsia. Archived from the original on 16 July 2020. Retrieved 16 July 2020.
  18. ^ Spencer, David (16 October 2020). "China's hostage diplomacy will only provoke more international ire". Taiwan News. Retrieved 16 October 2020.
  19. ^ Marson, James; McNish, Jacquie (15 February 2021). "West Unites Against Detention of Foreign Nationals in Signal to China". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 15 February 2021.
  20. ^ Ljunggren, David (15 February 2021). "Canada launches 58-nation initiative to stop arbitrary detentions". Reuters. Retrieved 15 February 2021.
  21. ^ "抵制中國「人質外交」 加拿大發起58國聯合宣言". Taiwan News. 16 February 2021. Retrieved 16 February 2021.
  22. ^ "American siblings return home after China lifts exit ban". Associated Press. 28 September 2021. Retrieved 28 September 2021.
  23. ^ Phelim Kine (19 June 2022). "Families push Biden for release of jailed Americans in China". Politico.
  24. ^ "Opinions adopted by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention at its eighty-ninth session, 23–27 November 2020" (PDF). United Nations. Retrieved 10 October 2022.
  25. ^ "Opinions adopted by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention at its eighty-sixth session, 18–22 November 2019" (PDF). United Nations. Retrieved 10 October 2022.
  26. ^ Eric Edelman, Aykan Erdemir &. "Erdogan's Hostage Diplomacy: Western Nationals in Turkish Prison" (PDF). Foundation for the Defense of Democracy. Archived (PDF) from the original on 16 December 2019. Retrieved 16 December 2019.
  27. ^ CUPOLO, DIEGO (6 May 2018). "Turkey's Dangerous Game of 'Hostage Diplomacy'". The Atlantic. Archived from the original on 16 December 2019. Retrieved 16 December 2019.
  28. ^ Philip, Catherine. "Kylie Moore-Gilbert: Iran uses crises to get what it wants". The Times. Archived from the original on 27 January 2020. Retrieved 1 May 2020.
  29. ^ Staff, Foreign (11 September 2019). "Iran's 'hostage diplomacy': All the known detainees with British links". The Daily Telegraph. United Kingdom. Archived from the original on 17 December 2019. Retrieved 16 December 2019.
  30. ^ Rouhani, Hassan (President of Iran), with Christiane Amanpour: interview (video and transcript), October 1, 2019 (replay of excerpt of September 30, 2019 interview), Amanpour and Company, PBS-TV, retrieved November 13, 2021
  31. ^ Bobby Ghosh (12 July 2022). "Expect More Hostage Diplomacy From a Desperate Iran". The Washington Post. Washington, D.C. Bloomberg. ISSN 0190-8286. OCLC 1330888409.
  32. ^ a b Bock Clark, Doug (23 July 2018). "The Untold Story of Otto Warmbier an American Hostage". GQ. Archived from the original on 1 August 2018. Retrieved 17 December 2019.
  33. ^ a b Sang-Hun, Choe (20 June 2017). "Otto Warmbier's Death a New Wedge Between U.S. and North Korea". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 17 December 2019. Retrieved 17 December 2019.
  34. ^ "North Korea is holding our citizens hostage, says Malaysia's PM Najib, after tit-for-tat travel bans". South China Morning Post. 7 March 2017. Archived from the original on 17 December 2019. Retrieved 17 December 2019.
  35. ^ Min-yong, Lee (12 May 2017). "Countering North Korea's Hostage Diplomacy". The Diplomat. Archived from the original on 17 December 2019. Retrieved 17 December 2019.
  36. ^ Saphora Smith, Stella Kim and. "North Korea's 'Hostage Diplomacy': Kim Uses Detained Americans as Leverage". NBC News. Archived from the original on 2 November 2019. Retrieved 17 December 2019.
  37. ^ Rob Schmitz; Miguel Macias; Amy Isackson (28 April 2022). "Trevor Reed came back home, but Paul Whelan is still imprisoned in Russia". NPR.
  38. ^ Barbara Plett Usher (4 August 2022). "Brittney Griner case throws spotlight on hostage diplomacy". BBC.