It’s been just four days since Ken and Jocelyn Elliott were kidnapped in by Islamist extremists in northern Burkina Faso. One can only imagine how frightened they must be, and the conditions in which they find themselves.
The couple was snatched from the charity hospital they have run in the African country since 1972, and their children have released a statement in which they called on the group, which is believed to be linked to Al Qaeda-linked jihadists, according to the ABC, to let their parents go.
“The Elliotts would urge those who have taken Ken and Jocelyn to strive constructively for peace, to the benefit of all people in the region, and release their parents safe and sound so that they may continue to assist those who are in need of their services,” the statement said.
Behind the scenes of this statement, the family must be feeling intense desperation. They must also be feeling incredibly alone and overwhelmed as they try to navigate hostage negotiations on their own. For it’s part, the government cannot offer much assistance to the Elliotts.
Clive Williams, an expert in hostage situations from Macquarie University explained the government’s position in WA Today. He said that, while the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Australian Federal Police will work with local authorities in Mali and Burkina Faso to find out who the kidnappers are and what they want, there is no question of the government putting up money for ransom.
“Australia’s policy, like that of Britain and the United States, is not to pay ransoms. This is logical because once a country pays a ransom it is seen as a soft touch for future demands. It also makes the nationals of that country preferred targets for kidnapping.”
“Because of our national no-payment policy, once Australian agencies have established it is a serious kidnapping by an insurgent or terrorist group, it is better for them to disengage from any contact with the hostage-takers and hand over negotiation to an experienced private security organisation that can act as a go-between for the family and the hostage-takers (DFAT and the AFP do, of course, continue to provide valuable support in other ways). Unlike the US, Australia has little capacity to resolve overseas hostage situations by force.”
Understanding why the nation can step in to protect these citizens, who are in their 80s, doesn’t make it any easier for those involved.
In 2009, Dick Smith and Senator Bob Brown were compelled to step in and contribute to the ransom raised by the family Australian photojournalist Nigel Brennan, who was a hostage in Somalia. His co-hostage was released after the Canadian government paid her ransom.
Brennan has said his kidnapping could have been resolvable in a matter of months. Instead it took 15 months. Professor Williams says, “The AFP could offer nothing that the hostage-takers wanted, and was not reliably contactable anyway. On one occasion after a hiatus in negotiations, the hostage-takers called the AFP on a contact number they had been given in Canberra, but it was a long weekend and the AFP phone was not manned at the time.”
Professor Williams says that, while we can hope for a speedy outcome for the Elliotts, it is unlikely. “Assuming it is a kidnap for ransom, their family might also have difficulty in raising sufficient money to gain their release. The Elliotts’ long experience of local conditions and Ken Elliott being a doctor might help to maintain their health; he should also be useful to his captors in dealing with local health issues and battle casualties,” he says.