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A haunting figure: The hostage through the ages

31-03-2005 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 857, by Irène Herrmann, Daniel Palmieri

The hostage has now reached the final stage in the deterioration of an already unenviable condition. This deterioration is not only due to the aggressors themselves but also reflects the current asymmetry in conflicts and is, even more, the result of a cruel irony of history.


Irène Herrmann and Daniel Palmieri
Dr Irène Herrmann is Lecturer at the University of Geneva; she is a specialist in Swiss and in Russian history.
Daniel Palmieri is Historical Research Officer at the International Committee of the Red Cross; his work deals with ICRC history and history of conflicts. 

Despite the recurrence of hostage-taking through the ages, the subject of hostages themselves has thus far received little analysis. Classically, there are two distinct types of hostages: voluntary hostages, as was common practice during the Ancien Régime of pre-Revolution France, when high-ranking individuals handed themselves over to benevolent jailers as guarantors for the proper execution of treaties; and involuntary hostages, whose seizure is a typical procedure in all-out war where individuals are held indiscriminately and without consideration, like living pawns, to gain a decisive military upper hand. Today the status of “hostage” is a combination of both categories taken to extremes. Though chosen for pecuniary, symbolic or political reasons, hostages are generally mistreated. They are in fact both the reflection and the favoured instrument of a major moral dichotomy: that of the increasing globalization of European and American principle s and the resultant opposition to it – an opposition that plays precisely on the western adherence to human and democratic values. In the eyes of his countrymen, the hostage thus becomes the very personification of the innocent victim, a troubling and haunting image.  

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