Wednesday, January 20, 2010
CSI has just launched its most recent negotiation effort called The Freedom Exchange Project. The goal of this project is for both the U.S. and Cuban governments to release political prisoners. For more information about the project and to sign the petition, visit: Freedom Exchange Project.
A prisoner exchange is an agreement between two opposing sides to release prisoners. These prisoners include political prisoners, spies, hostages and even dead bodies. “I’m very much encouraged by the exchange of prisoners,” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon when Israel and Hezbollah swapped prisoners in 2008 (UN News Centre). “I hope this will be the beginning of many to come in the future,” he added.
Prisoner exchanges are a contemporary innovation, according to Derek Brown. In ancient times, he added, captured enemies were slaughtered rather than kept hostage and fed (Guardian). During the Hundred Years’ War, for instance, it was only necessary for the French to incapacitate the English bowmen they captured by cutting off their index and middle fingers and then releasing them.This prompted the untouched Englishmen to tauntingly wave their still-remaining middle fingers, giving birth to the infamous gesture (Guardian).
As civilization became more sophisticated, so did the tactics used in war. It became the norm to capture and hold prisoners alive by the time of the Napoleonic wars.Using captives as a means to achieve an end was a practice honed during the American Civil war. A value was assigned to captured soldiers based on their rank. A captured general, for example, would be released in exchange for 46 privates (Guardian).
Capturing prisoners and keeping them alive, rather than killing them, became a way for one side to have leverage over another. The Cold War, to use a more recent example, did not have soldiers to capture, but it did have spies. In 1960, Gary Powers, a US Pilot whose plane was shot down, was found guilty of espionage and crimes against the Soviet people. He was sentenced to ten years imprisonment in the Soviet Union (Military). He was released two years later in one of the most famous spy swaps, negotiated by Wolfgang Vogel, when he was exchanged for the KGB spy Rudolf Abel.
Up until the Cold War ended, the people being captured were soldiers or spies directly involved with the war being fought. With the types of warfare changing, so are the types of people being captured and exchanged. Civilians, such as politician’s family members, journalists, and political dissidents, are being held because of ethnic conflicts, terrorist groups and political oppression.
Israel, for example, engaged in swaps with her neighbors and groups such as Hezbollah. In 2004, an Israeli businessman and the remains of three Jewish soldiers were transferred for over 400 Arab prisoners, 59 remains of Lebanese, a spy, and maps of landmines. Israel has a policy of saving every possible life, so many of the deals brokered have had an uneven number of prisoners exchanged (Guardian).
Another type of prisoner exchange that developed is a Humanitarian exchange. This type of exchange is used in Colombia to describe a swap between hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC for its initials in Spanish) and imprisoned guerillas. FARC has kidnapped thousands of people, ranging from ordinary civilians to high-profile politicians such as Ingrid Betancourt, to put raise funds and also to put pressure on the Colombian government to create a demilitarized zone and release guerillas (BBC).“I see no possible solution to the conflict other than negotiation,” said former politician Alan Jara after he was released from captivity (IPS).
From the ongoing political prisoners held in Cuba to the recent holding of Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari in Iran, it is clear that people, and more frequently civilians with information or dissident ideas, will be continued to be detained. Exchanging prisoners is a model that worked in the past.
“I was neither a resistance fighter nor a good Samaritan,” said Wolfgang Vogel, the late overseer of many Cold War swaps. “My ways were not white or black. They had to be grey — otherwise it would not have worked,” he added (Times). Conflicts can be ended and civilians can be released with prisoner exchanges, if both sides are willing to negotiate.
Brown, Derek. “Prisoners of Fortune.” The Guardian Online, 2 February 2004: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2004/feb/02/comment.derekbrown
Sullivan, Michael. “Francis Gary Powers: One Man, Two Countries and One Cold War.” Military.com: http://www.military.com/Content/MoreContent1/?file=cw_fgpowers
Viera, Constanza. “COLOMBIA: Freed Hostage Calls for Peace.” IPS News Agency, 4 February 2009: http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=45677
UN News Centre, “Ban Encouraged by Prisoner Exchange between Israel and Hizbollah.” 16 July 2008: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=27386&Cr=Leban&Cr1
Times Online, “Wolfgang Vogel:East German Lawyer,” 27 August 2008: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/obituaries/article4613780.ece
BBC News Online, “Q&A: Colombia Hostage Situation,” 3 July 2008: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7161276.stm