RICR No. 857

A haunting figure: The hostage through the ages

Reading time 4 min de lecture
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AbstractDespite 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 principles 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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