Hostage International adds expertise on panel looking at the complexities of arbitrary detention

Hostage International adds expertise on panel looking at the complexities of arbitrary detention

Our CEO, Lara Symons, contributed to a panel event at the UN Human Rights Council on Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations: Building Global Solidarity Against Hostage Diplomacy on 26 June 2024.

 Speaking on the side event’s panel, Lara highlighted the human impact on families and hostages from the perspective of Hostage International – a leading organisation in providing direct support to those affected by arbitrary detention, and kidnaps, for over twenty years. She said:

We support people from many different nationalities and cases that have occurred across many different countries and the common factor in all those cases is the human suffering.

In an arbitrary detention, that suffering is the unknown.

Unlike an ordinary detention – where the family has an idea of what is going to happen, they have clarity around why their loved one is being held, what the charges might be, what the processes are – in an arbitrary detention there is no such clarity. Families are in the dark, they don’t have a role, or a contribution to make of any significance. The resolution is largely in the hands of their home government and the information they may receive is quite limited so they’re left in a situation of waiting to see what will happen.

This can leave families feeling hopeless and over time – these cases usually last months, often years – being in a state of helplessness for that length of time is incredibly debilitating. It can lead to anxiety and depression which can persist even after the detainee has returned home.

From the detainee’s perspective, it’s also a question of living with the unknown. In the first days and weeks, possibly months, people may be held in solitary confinement without any information about why they’re being held. They will feel there is a mistake, that they’ll be released soon and they have their hopes up. But often there is no consular support, as this is often denied, and when it does occur it is often infrequent. That consular support isn’t about telling them what’s happening and what the solutions are, it’s about checking in on their wellbeing which, while is important, doesn’t give the answers and clarity.

They also have restricted contact with their family; if they have contact at all, it may be indirect. The detainee is left feeling abandoned and the narrative of their detention is very much controlled by those holding them.

The physical impact of their detention is also huge.

Imprisonment is something that is done to punish people who have committed an offence, but arbitrary detainees are innocent and being deprived of their liberty, their ability to make their own decisions in their lives – to speak to whom they want, to eat what they want – brings a huge sense of injustice and it’s humiliating. It has huge consequences for them in the long term.

But also, the treatment they receive as an arbitrary detainee is very concerning. We have reports coming back to us of detainees who have not been able to sleep because the lights are on 24/7, because radios are kept on to disturb them all day and night, and we hear cases of interrogations where there are clear human rights breaches. There are great physical and mental impacts to the conditions.

Then there are the practical issues, affecting the family as well as the detainee. Often the detainee is the breadwinner or brings in at least 50 per cent of the income to the family, so in their absence there are real financial hardships for families. There is also an administrative nightmare when it comes to household admin as the detainee isn’t allowed to sign papers or give instructions. When the detainee returns, they have to unravel that mess in addition to recovering from the detention itself. And, if not retired, they’ll have to find a job, but few are able to go back to the job they did before they were detained.

So, what does post release look like?

In the short term, detainees have to come home and deal with the physical impact of their detention – their teeth, eyes, digestive system, mobility issues, all may have been impacted by captivity.

Once the euphoria of the initial release ends, that’s when the long-term work starts because that is when the psychological impact takes effect. Both the family and the returning detainee have a different trauma that they have lived through in the same case but they have to learn to have a shared narrative about what that trauma looks like and how they can build their lives going forward together. If there are children or a child, then that means restoring and re-establishing that relationship, which may have been impacted by the absence.

It’s hugely complicated.

We see many former detainees developing post-traumatic stress disorder at some point in their post-release life, and often family members as well. We have had people coming to Hostage International as much as 30 years after release, which shows the impact is very long term.


Lara Symons, was speaking at the Side Event at the 56th Regular Session of the UN Human Rights Council at the Palais des Nations.

 Lara contributed to the panel alongside other experts including: Julie Sunday, Canada’s Senior Official for Hostage Affairs, Olivier Vandecasteele, Founder of Protect Humanitarians, Dr Matthew Gillett, Current Chair-Rapporteur of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Stephanie Foggett, a Research Consultant with The Soufan Group, Dr Shaheen Sardar Ali who sits on the Independent International Panel on Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations.

June 2024



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Hostage International adds expertise on panel looking at the complexities of arbitrary detention
Hostage International adds expertise on panel looking at the complexities of arbitrary detention