Article by Mark Lowe

Have you considered what the impact of a kidnapping, abduction or imprisonment of one of your staff members would have on your organisation? What would the consequences be and how would you deal with the situation? What if the scenario was one of state detention, a case in which your staff member was detained on spurious rather than authentic charges?

Unfortunately similar risks are increasing and thus organisations have to address the key issues of how to avoid them and, in a worst case scenario, how to manage them.

In this article we will focus on state detentions and specifically those based on political objectives, however, a number of the issues raised in this analysis are applicable to kidnappings and abductions in general.

What constitutes a state detention?

First and foremost a clear distinction has to be made between political kidnappings and state detentions. For the purpose of this analysis we shall consider political kidnappings to be crimes committed by, for example, a terrorist or rebel group with the intention of benefitting from the release of prisoners held by a state or other similar concessions. State detentions are, as the definition clearly states, actions conducted by government agencies of a de facto state.

Over the past few years we have noticed an increase in the detention of foreign citizens based on the political goals of nations as diverse as China, Iran and Russia.

Said goals vary and on occasions can simply be tit for tat measures in response to a perceived tort. For example the 2018 arrest in China of the Canadian citizens Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig on espionage charges, a detention that created the basis for the release of Chinese citizen and Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou who had been placed under house arrest in Canada while awaiting extradition to the United States of America to face fraud charges.

The swap brought to an end a damaging diplomatic row between Beijing, Ottawa and Washington and served as a stark message to western companies: where necessary, representatives of western companies will be detained in an effort to obtain political goals.

The scenario that you will be working in

The issue of state detentions as representing unlawful detention is purely academic: the simple fact is that a member of your organisation is being held in a foreign country on a pretext or on fabricated accusations.

To compound difficulties, very often this will be in a country with a complicated judicial framework and the detention itself managed via a less than transparent process.

The first issue that your organisation will have to deal with is understanding what is happening and then understanding what this means for the organisation in terms of both direct and indirect consequences.

The most direct consequence is that someone will have to take over the individual’s role, continuity will be fundamental to the organisation.

Indirect consequences will be of a reputational nature for example, an issue that not all organisations are prepared for.

Your organisation will have to deal with family members, staff, the media, and the authorities.

The Farnesina will require a considerable amount of information, not simply details of eventual medical conditions and personal background and circumstances but also precise explanations as to why they were in the country, who they were dealing with, who they had met with, and a number of other important information elements.

All of this while the media are calling, gathering under your offices and trying anyway possible to interview management, employees and family members.

Are you prepared for this? In a great many cases the answer is going to be no.

The situation may last for a long time, the Canadian citizens cited above were held in China for almost three years. However, irrespective of the duration, you will be dealing with a highly difficult situation in which you are going to require outside assistance, for example advice on internal and external communications to cite just one.

Mitigate or manage?

The most obvious answer to this question is mitigate. To this end we asked Pyramid Temi Group’s CEO Roger Warwick to offer some advice on what organisations can do to reduce their exposure to the risk of state detention:

The first answer, as always, is preparation: what do we know about the country that we’ll be visiting, have we been monitoring emerging situations, do we have reason to believe that this might not be the right moment to send someone down there?

So country intelligence is the starting point, but in the case of approving a transfer what practical considerations do we have to make?

If a visit is approved then we have to brief the individual, or individuals, as to what to expect and how to prepare for it. In this briefing we’ll cover a series of very different considerations but for the purpose of focusing on state detentions I’d highlight the following consideration as an example: first and foremost do not under any circumstances give anyone the suspicion that you’re there for anything else than business, and this includes any display of opinions or ideas on local politics, religion or international affairs. Obvious? Probably so but how many travellers fail to stick to this rule?”

“Another issue that might seem like a scene from a spy movie, but you can take my word that it happens in real life, is targeting. Our business travellers have to be aware of the fact that they can be specifically targeted, the objective is to compromise them. We cover this in detail during one of our course modules, some people are surprised while others tell us that they’d been approached while in country x, y or z. It’s always interesting to listen to their stories.”

And what do you advise people to do in these cases?

“Extract themselves from the situation, you can always say that you have an appointment to respect, a telephone call to make or any number of other credible excuses.”

WIll this be sufficient?

”Every case is unique, it could very well be that the person trying to make friends with you is simply another business person that wanted a conversation to pass the time, a bar conversation, nothing sinister at all. However, the bottom line is that you do not want to be involved.”

What about a situation in which agents of a government agency approach you, for example while passing through security at an airport?

“Well here we raise another issue, certainly you cannot refuse to answer questions and you cannot refuse to hand over your computer or telephone in which case you’re going to have to be certain that nothing on either of these devices could compromise you.”

For example?

“Well comments and posts on social media are the most obvious, basically you shouldn’t have a social media profile at all if you’re visiting at-risk countries.”

“Think also about the contact list on your telephone or in your email account, is there anyone in there from a country that’s considered an enemy of the state you’re in? The bottom line is very simple, you take mobile devices that are clean, that only have the contacts that you need while away, your office colleagues, your hotel, the numbers of those who you will be visiting. Make sure that the only email account is your corporate account.”

But what if they ask details of your social media profile or personal email account?

“Well in that case, and it’s something that happens to a lot of people, you’re just going to have to hope that you remembered to double check before leaving that there’s nothing on either that could put you in a difficult situation.”

Easier said than done perhaps?

“I’d disagree, all of this can be done. Going back to our courses, it’s one of the many issues that we address. We need individuals and organisations to have a firm understanding of best practices, I’d ask them to maintain them on a continual basis. Before you leave prepare in accordance with company procedures but above all stick to our security culture.”

And what if you do have to travel to a higher or high risk destination?

“Well first and foremost we should fall back on company procedures and the support and advice that our Travel Security Manager will be able to offer us. They will recognise the fact that a state detention risk exists in a number of countries and that they can be targeted or opportunistic, to this end they will focus on a full risk assessment and define the necessary pre-travel preparations.”

What if you don’t have a Travel Risk Manager or a suitably prepared security manager?

“Well then your only option is to raise the issue with management. Speak with your superior and raise the question with Human Resources. Let me be clear on this, not everyone has access to a Travel Risk Manager, not every organisation has the necessary travel security procedures, however, as we navigate towards an ever more insecure global environment it is essential that we address and resolve the question of implementing best practices. With the publication of the ISO31030 there is no longer any reason to delay the introduction of a robust travel risk management system.”