Hostage Diplomacy: who's in control?

2022 Michael Hintze Lecture with Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert

British-Australian academic, Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert, highlights the complex nature of state hostage taking, and outlines ways in which Australia’s approach can be refined to tackle this insidious and growing global problem.

The use of individual citizens of a country as tools of diplomatic leverage in disputes between states is often referred to as Hostage Diplomacy, a form of arbitrary detention that involves the imprisonment and/or conviction of innocent foreign or dual-national visitors as a means of extracting concessions from their country of citizenship.

In 2018, Kylie Moore-Gilbert was falsely charged with espionage and imprisoned in Iran for more than two years before being released in a prisoner exchange deal negotiated by the Australian government. As a victim of hostage diplomacy, Moore-Gilbert experienced first-hand the injustice of being reduced to little more than a political bargaining chip.

Hear her unique insights into the Australian government’s approach to arbitrary detention and her current involvement in lobbying to reform both Australia’s strategic response and the provision of support services to victims and their families.

After the talk, Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert is joined in conversation by Professor Sarah Phillips.

This Sydney Ideas event was held on Thursday 29 September 2022 in the Social Sciences Building SSB Lecture Theatre 200, in partnership with the Centre for International Security Studies.


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Audio transcript

- [Fenella Kernebone] Wonderful to see you all here for this very special Sydney Ideas event. It is the 2022 Michael Hintze Lecture with Dr. Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert. Hostage Diplomacy: Who's In Control, and it's presented in partnership with the Center for International Security Studies. My name's Fenella Kernebone, I'm the Head of Programming for Sydney Ideas, and it's a wonderful thing to have you joining us here in the room. And of course for those of you who are joining us online too, welcome to you. Tonight, we're so pleased to welcome you, Kylie Moore-Gilbert, academic to speak to us to highlight the complex nature of state hostage taking and the ways that Australia's approach can be refined to tackle what is a growing and global problem, and I know Kylie's gonna talk to us about this. But before we continue, I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of Australia, and recognize their continuing connection to land, to water, and to culture. The University of Sydney is on the land of the Gadigal people, and I pay my respects to elders, past and present. We are on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and we acknowledge that this land has never been ceded. I also further acknowledge the traditional custodians of country where you might live, where you might work, where you might share ideas here in the room and of course at at home as well, and I pay my respects to elders past, present, and also extend that respect to any members of First Nations communities who might be here today. So it's now my great pleasure to welcome to the stage Professor James Der Derian, who is the director of the Center for International Security Studies. He's the Michael Hintze chair. We're here tonight for the Michael Hintze Lecture and what a delight it is to welcome him to the stage to offer some background to tonight's event. Would you please welcome James?

- [James Der Derian] Thank you, Fenella, very much, and thank you Sydney Ideas for keeping the intellectual life of Sydney vibrant, I really appreciate it, and thank you all for coming. I mean, to see people in an auditorium again after the long pandemic interviewed is something very, very special and heartwarming. So we appreciate, we very much appreciate it. And we're here today thanks to a generous gift from Sir Michael Hintze and Lady Dorothy Hintze. The gift was intended to set up the Center for International Security Studies in 2006, and it is partially geared towards research, teaching, but something like this, public engagement, getting ideas out there, getting ideas back. So this is a very special occasion, an annual event, it's been on a hiatus, and now we're back and we're thrilled to be back with a remarkable speaker. I'm just gonna say a word or two about the topic. We're all here to hear about hostage diplomacy. This might be a new term for some of you, but it has an an old history, it goes back to antiquity. For a very long time, warring parties exchanged hostages to keep the peace, in classical Greece. Many of you see the Godfather film. When you wanted to negotiate, you exchanged hostages. But it's changed, it's been globalized, and as we've seen recently, it's been personalized. And we're here to to hear about that because nation states have to reckon with this now in a way, because it's become a tool of the weak against the strong, an asymmetrical tool. It's been globalized, and as we're gonna hear today from our speaker, it's been personalized, and it's something that we, why we invited our speaker today is because we feel that this is something that's not gonna go away. It's because of the incredible courage of Kylie and the resilience, of course, that we invite her to speak, but it's because she's taken it along as a cause to educate, but also to begin an advocacy to those people who don't get heard. There's a lot of people out there right now who are sitting in jails who don't get heard. And that's why we chose Kylie, and we're very appreciative to have you here today. I also just wanted to say that we're very fortunate to have with us, Dr. Sarah Phillips. She's one of our own from CISS. She's an expert on in African politics in Northern Africa and the Middle East. Just came back from the region, does a lot of field research on this, and we are honored to have her introduce our speaker, and we're honored to have her, of course, to moderate, after which there will be a Q&A session. So thank you once again for all coming, and I hope you enjoy the event, I'm really looking forward to hearing more about hostage diplomacy and to hearing how you all respond to this in the Q&A period, so thank you very much. Sarah, the floor's yours.

- [Sarah Phillips] Thanks very much James, and thank you all for coming. It is just really nice to be here for a live event. I can't tell you. And it's so nice to be able to do it with this lady right here. In 2018, as I'm sure many of you know, Dr. Kylie Moore-Gilbert was falsely accused and charged of espionage and imprisoned in Iran for over two years, before she was released in a prisoner exchange deal that was negotiated by the Australian government. As a victim of hostage diplomacy, Dr. Moore Gilbert experienced firsthand the injustice of being reduced to little more than a political bargaining chip. And I'm sure that some of you have probably already read her wonderful book, "The Uncaged Sky." If you have not, I highly recommend it to you. It is also available in audiobook, which Kylie reads just perfectly. But to those of you who haven't, I can really recommend it to you, I mean, for many reasons. But not least of which is the nuance with which she portrays the Iranian political system and the place in which prisons play within that system. It's also, I think, striking for its portrayal of her captors as part of wider systems of power, but equally as sometimes capable of exercising agency within those systems of power. And I think that as we watch the events that are unfolding now in Iran, as protestors demand change after the brutal death of Mahsa Amini while in custody of the Guidance Patrol, which is also also known as the the Morality Police. Kylie's book, I think, is a testament to the savvy and the courage of Iranian women. And throughout the book, you are introduced to her fellow prisoners, many of whom help her and to help each other to navigate the prison system, sustaining each other with practical advice, with solidarity, and with the gift of hope. And in her ongoing advocacy for those incarcerated in Iran's political prisons, and for those who are imprisoned elsewhere as well, Dr. Moore Gilbert, again, displays a very nuanced understanding of the deeper international politics that are at play here, both formally and informally. So tonight, she's going to share with us her unique insights into the Australian government's approach to arbitrary detention and her current involvement in lobbying to reform both Australia's strategic response to this problem, but also the provision of support services to victims and their families. I'll be joining her in conversation afterwards, but please welcome Dr. Kylie Moore-Gilbert.

- [Dr. Moore-Gilbert] Hi everyone, thank you so much for having me today. It's amazing to see so many people here. I'm gonna read this speech, and then we're gonna have a Q&A, and I'd love to hear all of your questions, and I'm open to answering anything whatsoever. So yeah, please have a think while I'm talking, and we'll talk afterwards. In the official diplomatic language of most Western democracies, including our own, hostage diplomacy does not exist. It is a term which is only tacitly acknowledged in the corridors of power, or privately to the families and loved ones of hostages. Despite this, however, it is a phrase which is growing in popularity in the media and among NGOs, campaigners, and advocates. While governments might be reticent to call out the taking of hostages for diplomatic purposes, the truth is that not only is hostage diplomacy happening, it is on the rise. In many ways, hostage diplomacy is a neat and easily digestible expression of an ancient phenomenon. The detention of foreign citizens as a tool of leverage in state to state relations. In our increasingly multi-polar world, there is a clear link between growing challenges to the international rules-based order and hostage taking as a diplomatic tool. The decline of western dominance in the international sphere and the increasing brazenness of authoritarian states like China, Russia, and Iran has meant that such states now perceive that the risks inherent in taking diplomatic hostages are likely minimal, and far surpassed by the potential rewards. Western diplomats are loathe to use the term hostage diplomacy for fear of offending their interlocutors in the state which is detaining their citizen. For sure is not a neutral term by any means. However, does our failure to call a spade a spade help us in any way to rescue innocent fellow citizens from the deep pit of despair that spade is engaged in digging? Does refusing to acknowledge the phenomenon make our adversary spades pause in the act of excavation, or does it rather give them cover to burrow deeper still into the Earth, building vaster dungeons to house yet more innocent people? Ladies and gentlemen, I put to you that on the issue of hostage diplomacy, we are weak. This weakness can be seen throughout the Western democracies and stems from a kind of naive and feeble delusion that as history must advance inexorably forward in the direction of progress, our increasing inability to cajole or coerce the rest of the world into adhering to the international rules-based order that we set up must be merely a blip which will correct itself in time. Therefore, if we ask nicely enough, stating firmly that we have no intention of interfering in other countries' judicial affairs, if we avoid outrage or provocation or consequences, maybe, just maybe, our hostage taking adversary will stop their bad behavior. Maybe countries which lack any rule of law to speak of, or a free and independent judicial system will suddenly decide to be reasonable, enact a fair trial, and let our innocent citizens return home. I don't need to tell you that this approach is clearly a fantasy, and that belligerent, authoritarian regimes like Iran's don't appreciate the answers of such diplomatic niceties. They smell weakness. Our inability to punish or discourage hostage taking therefore acts as a perverse sort of incentive to such regimes. There are very few costs and a plethora of rewards to be gained by taking hostages. Hostage diplomacy pays dividends and until we find a way to make it not be so, what was done to me and dozens upon dozens of other citizens of mostly Western democracies will continue with abandon and whenever the opportunity arises. What to do about hostage diplomacy is an especially tricky issue faced by those responsible for consular and foreign affairs in countries like Australia. I would argue that navigating the strategic mine field is a task beyond both the capabilities and the remit of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, as well as its international equivalents. Hostage diplomacy is only superficially a consular issue. At its core, it is a deeply political issue, and therefore it needs a political solution. A solution which requires creative out of the box thinking and political courage, characteristics not usually associated with insular government bureaucracies. Tackling hostage diplomacy also requires a collaborative approach with input from a variety of branches of government, such as intelligence, defense, consular, foreign affairs, and even the judiciary if a prisoner swap or some other legal change is needed. Government departments which zealously guard their turf and are often reluctant to work together must be forced to do so, especially if the aim is to bring the hostage home quickly. On hostage diplomacy and arbitrary detention more broadly, Australia needs a clear and sensible strategy. Right now, we have none. This strategy should set out the approach we take when one of our citizens is detained by a state for purposes of diplomatic leverage. It should also determine our red lines in any negotiation of securing their release. Will we, for instance, green light the transfer of substantial sums of cash to the hostage taking country irrespective of international sanctions and the frightening human rights implications of such ransom payments? Both the UK and the US have done just this when Iran has taken their citizens hostage. The billions they transferred to the Iranian regime are now being used to shoot Iranian demonstrators in the streets for bravely exercising their right to peaceful protest. Is it okay to swap our prisoners for theirs, even if it means swapping innocent for guilty? How guilty is too guilty to be swapped? In my case, three convicted terrorists were released from prison in Thailand and allowed to return to Iran, where they received a hero's welcome. If these terrorists hadn't been incompetent morons and had actually killed people, would that have been a step too far? Belgium is currently debating swapping Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat who received 20 years in prison for smuggling bombs into Europe in his diplomatic bag, and plotting to attack Iranian dissidents at a rally in Brussels. This terrorist would be released in exchange for Olivier Vandecasteele, an innocent foreign aid worker who has spent the past six months in brutal solitary confinement and was arrested, coincidentally, of course, just as Assadi's trial was wrapping up. Would freeing a would be mass murderer be a bitter pill worth swallowing if it meant that Vandecasteele would be allowed to return home to his distraught family? What about freeing the convicted war criminal Hamid Nouri imprisoned in Sweden for his part in the massacre of thousands of political prisoners in the 1980s. Iran has taken several Swedish tourists hostage as a consequence. These delicate moral quandaries should be carefully weighed up by our elected representatives, and the hostages in question should not be left to suffer. They should not be left to suffer literally years of pain and torment until bureaucracies like DFAT decide to refer such decision making up to their political bosses. Clearly, there is enormous potential for international collaboration on this issue. Australia has signed up to Canada's declaration against arbitrary detention in state to state relations, we even have our own Magnitsky Act, which could theoretically be used to target perpetrators. Sadly however, like much in international law, the declaration is symbolic, non-binding, and therefore toothless. The UN Convention on Hostage Taking does not cover state actors, and while the Canadian declaration or the UN convention could be adapted or expanded, there is no indication that such reforms are on the cards. Nor would it mean much if the authoritarian regimes which are actually engaged in hostage taking don't sign up. As for Magnitsky, so far, Australia has declined to sanction anyone at all, except for a handful of Russians. Absent any meaningful progress on the international front, Australia should be developing its own standalone strategy on hostage diplomacy and arbitrary detention. The problem with leaving the management of state hostage taking cases to DFAT consular, as they are currently, is that hostage diplomacy is not a consular issue. If someone is arrested, not because they committed a crime or even suspected of doing so, but because they are an Australian citizen, this is not a matter of law and order at all. As I said earlier, it is a political matter, and it requires a political solution. I am therefore of the view that hostage diplomacy and arbitrary detention must be separated out from DFAC consulate's caseload, and treated as the separate phenomena they are. When our citizens are arrested because of the fact that they are our citizens, somebody needs to make a call as to what carrots and or sticks could be offered to get that person out as quickly as possible. Someone needs to communicate with the families of the detainees as well as receive information or intel from them, which can often flow both ways. Someone needs to liaise with the broad array of stakeholders whose input could be useful, from intelligence to defense to Australian embassies on the ground. Someone needs to lobby the politicians to sign off on a strategy which must be developed with creativity and flexible thinking. Most importantly, the buck must stop with someone who is both approachable and accountable. Again, bureaucratic government departments are ill-suited to driving forward such tasks, which often require decisive action and a certain measure of risk taking. In addition to developing a clear model for getting our citizens out of unjust detention in a swift and morally sound fashion as possible, Australia also needs to think about how it communicates with the loved ones of current hostages and what it does with the hostages once they come home. On both points, our form has often been poor, to say the least. Many are surprised to hear that DFAT can refuse to provide information to the distressed family members of Australian hostages until the hostage themselves sign a privacy waiver form. This bureaucratic catch 22 often persists for months, as the Australian government usually does not have immediate access to the hostage in order to provide them with the form to sign. This is not only irrational, but causes real harm to family members who are already suffering immensely. In general, when interacting with hostage families, I believe the government could do with a bit more compassion as well as common sense. DFAT's consular operations are also highly secretive and marked by an almost paranoid aversion to engagement with media. Family members, whilst being told very little, oppressed into silence, using the very effective threat of if you speak out or campaign for your loved one, you will endanger them in prison. This is often in the absence of any evidence or precedent of this being so. In the case of Iran, the fate of dozens of European and American hostages have received media coverage over the years, and there's not a single example of press attention leading to the hostage's punishment in prison. To the contrary, my example and that of others is a testament that the opposite is often true. Public attention forces the hostage taking state to actually treat the detainee better in prison, including improved access to medical treatment. There are certainly cases in which a public campaign would be detrimental to negotiating a hostage's release. However, intimidating families into staying quiet often results in the family eventually going AWOL and treading a path that could endanger negotiations in a much more meaningful way than had they maintained an open channel of communication with DFAT. For instance, a campaign calling on the Australian government to do more to free me from prison in Iran would've been of little consequence to my Iranian captors. A campaign insulting the Iranian nation or abusing members of the Iranian judiciary would've gone down very differently. In today's interconnected media saturated environment, it is unrealistic to expect the loved ones of a hostage to keep quiet, particularly when coupled with a reticence to share detailed information with them in a more private capacity. One final area of policy, which I believe needs to be better engaged with is reintegrating the detainee back into society once they arrive home. It shocks many people when I say there was no procedure in place for when I got off the plane. I received no comprehensive medical exam, neuropsychiatric evaluation. There was no formal debriefing, no support services appeared to exist. I went straight into hotel quarantine and from there, simply went on my way. Each returnee's needs would, of course, be different, a one size fits all approach would be unwise. We have, however, seen some cases of returned hostages failing to cope following their release back into Australian society. Recently, one former hostage returned to Afghanistan to celebrate the Taliban's takeover of the country with his former captors. What was going through his mind? Was it Stockholm syndrome? What support, if any, did this former hostage receive following his years in brutal captivity? To be fair, what happens once a detainee returns home is not DFAT's purview. They are primarily concerned with what's happening outside the country and once the hostage returns home, their job is done. The problem is there doesn't seem to be anyone else to pick up the slack. We should also remember that DFAT has to deal with an average 40,000 consular cases a year, most of which involve Aussies dying or becoming sick or injured abroad, or even committing real and actual crimes. There are many excellent and dedicated employees in the department, but DFAT's caseload is ever increasing, and they lack the resources and funding to offer more than the most basic consular assistance in most cases. The United States has a model of best practice in this area. It's called the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. We need not adopt the US model whole scale, but we can adapt a similar envoy role to an Australian context. We could call this a commissioner or a special representative or even a task force. This person would ideally work with, but sit outside of DFAT, and would be appointed by and report to the foreign minister of the day. They would be tasked with developing strategy for achieving the return of the hostage as expeditiously as possible. They would also assist in developing a broader policy which acts to learn from past cases and from partner countries which face similar challenges, and act to disincentivize countries that do not respect the rules-based order from taking further hostages in the future. In the absence of international conventions or collective international action, Australia needs to be prepared to go it alone in tackling the scourge of hostage diplomacy, at least insofar as its own citizens are concerned. We need to be prepared to punish hostage taking states, including making robust use of Magnitsky sanctions without being perpetually hamstrung by fears of upsetting diplomatic relationships. After all, is not imprisoning innocent citizens of Australia for diplomatic leverage, not firing the first shot in an assault on our bilateral relationship? We should not be afraid of firing back. An Australian version of the American Special Presidential Envoy would act as a fulcrum to bring together and push forward the various levers of government whose input is necessary to bringing a hostage home. This person could coordinate with families and the media and could oversee the reintegration of the hostage once he or she arrives back in Australia. We will never be able to fully solve hostage diplomacy, but we can certainly do more to minimize its occurrence, and we can certainly do better in our approach to assisting current hostages and their families. I call on the government to develop a standalone strategy, and consider implementing a model similar to that of the US Special Presidential Envoy. DFAT and the government will continue to dither, buck pass, and deflect, until it stops being politically expedient for them to do so. I hope you will join me in demanding that greater attention be paid to this issue, not only in the name of our fellow Australians currently unjustly imprisoned abroad, including Sean Turnell, who actually only hours ago received a three year prison sentence in Myanmar. Chang Lei and Robert Pether, but also in the name of those who cruelly and unimaginably and unfairly we know will be next. Thank you.

- [Sarah Phillips] Thank you so much, Kylie. That was fascinating. And I didn't realize that that happened so recently with Sean Turnell, that's very upsetting. I was wondering if perhaps in our conversation, we might be able to turn a little more to the issue of academic freedom. We're in a university, you're an academic, and I wanted to discuss some of the issues that your experience raises for that, and for scholars who want to continue to do research in authoritarian and conflict-affected context. And so I'm wondering whether you think after everything that you've been through, that academic research should continue in Iran under the current regime. I mean, in other words, I guess what I'm trying to get at here is, is a better understanding of Iran's people, its culture, its politics worth the risk that it potentially poses to researchers? And I guess the question more broadly would go to journalists as well.

- [Dr. Moore-Gilbert] This is such a tricky question. I, like yourself, Sarah, I was a field work academic. I loved field work, I believe and still do strongly in the value of field work. If we become desk animals as academics, and we just sit behind our screens and monitor from far away, there's so much we're missing out on, I don't think we can call ourselves experts at all if we never visit the countries or places in the world that we claim expertise in. So I cannot say that nobody should travel to Iran for research, despite what happened to me. I still see the value in it. I would put a caveat on that by saying that we definitely need a more robust framework for assessing kinds of field work research that is permitted in such places. We cannot remove all the risk, however. If we were to say that any risky country in the world is off limits for research, we would probably have to strike off every country in the world other than the western democracies. And think about what we would be missing if we weren't able to travel to vast swathes of Africa in the Middle East and Asia and South America and et cetera. There's always gonna be a risk there. And I think the analogy with journalism is a good one, because we recognize as a society that having foreign correspondence, having journalists in the field is crucial. It's crucial to our ability to gather knowledge, process knowledge and understand what's going on in the world. And I think academics perform a very similar role, it's just less immediate. You're not seeing the results on a nightly basis on your TV or whatever, in the TV news. But the gathering of research, it might take years instead of days, but it's still performing a crucial role for society. And I think perhaps universities need to be a little bit more like journalistic outfits and approach academics traveling abroad to do research in the field in the same way that the ABC might approach sending a foreign correspondent out to the Middle East to report. And that is, there needs to be an understanding of the risk profile, there needs to be training around how to conduct oneself in such a location, and there needs to be on the ground contacts, or people in place to help out in the event of an emergency.

- [Sarah Phillips] I think that's a really good idea, and I'm always thinking of the kinds of specifics. 'Cause as you know, I have students who want to go and do this work as well and I'm afraid that the door's being closed to that opportunity. But I think you're right, that we do need to have a more systematic way of thinking through risk and preparing researchers not only for the kinds of risks that you've been talking about, but but also for the ethical challenges that this can pose in multiple directions as well. Do you think that there are any specific safeguards that you can come up with that would've helped in your instance, or is is that just too much hindsight required for that question?

- [Dr. Moore-Gilbert] I think definitely there's a lot of hindsight. It's very easy to look back and say if only.

- [Sarah Phillips] Sure.

- [Dr. Moore-Gilbert] But if there was some sort of training or understanding of what to do in an emergency if you get stuck or if you get into trouble, whether that be some sort of government hotline, some sort of direct line to the Australian Embassy in Tehran, because actually, the day before my arrest, I went on the embassy website. I wanted to give them a call because I was concerned, and there was no phone number.

- [Sarah Phillips] That's interesting.

- [Dr. Moore-Gilbert] So obviously, they don't want all calling them up and getting in touch and getting spammed by random people or whatever. But there was no way of contacting the embassy other than going down there physically in person and knocking on the door. And I've heard anecdotally, you can't do that either because without an appointment, they won't let you in.

- [Sarah Phillips] That's right.

- [Dr. Moore-Gilbert] So it's very problematic. And if embassies aren't providing that, then perhaps universities need to think about providing that too. That if you, 'cause sometimes you just get picked up without warning and it's terrible bad luck and there's nothing you can do. But often, there would be some sort of signal or sign or you might have a suspicion or something and a few hours before, or there might be the opportunity to ask for help. And if it was easy to do that asking, then you might save yourself from a very sticky situation.

- [Sarah Phillips] Absolutely, and I think you're right, thinking, and it really comes through in your book. When you go back, as you said, in hindsight, you can put the breadcrumbs together to see how this came into being, and if there was some sort of a line that could be extended to people, journalists, researchers, to get some sort of quick access. I think that's an interesting thing to pursue. I've got a question here from an audience member that was offered up previously, asking something on a similar sort of tangent, but asking if there was anything in the ethics research approval process that you could have done or that could have been done by the universities to make research safer?

- [Dr. Moore-Gilbert] My impression of applying for several ethics approval processes in my formal life as an academic was that when assessing the risk profile of the project, the emphasis is very much on the participants or the subjects of the research rather than on the researcher themselves. And that is warranted, of course, because any research with human subjects, you need to assess the ethical implications and et cetera for that subject. But there wasn't very much, from what I can recall, about personal safety on a personal level of the research, if they were going abroad or doing something that could result in a risky situation, even minimally. But at the end of the day, to be honest with you, my view of ethics approval process is just a bureaucratic nightmare, it's a series of hoops you gotta jump through. Nobody cares that you got some bureaucrat ticking boxes somewhere in the background. This person has no understanding of what your research is. It's just someone in some central department somewhere, the people on the committee that approve the projects, half of them are from science or from engineering or from some other faculty, again, no real understanding. And it's, I could think I can speak for a lot of my other fellow researchers who I knew at the time too that we just viewed it as an annoyance, a series of forms we had to fill out. Nobody really takes it seriously because there's very little that bureaucratic form filling out can do to help you in a real life situation when you travel abroad. And I think actually some sort of training or a short course that the university can offer all field work academics who travel abroad for instance, that would be much more useful than an enhanced ethics approval process.

- [Sarah Phillips] Yeah, you're right. There is a very common complaint that the social sciences tend to be lumped in with the hard sciences in approval processes. So we spend a lot of time sort of going through the ways in which we're not going to medically harm the people that we interact with, but there's less sensitivity, I guess, in the issues that you're raising, and I think that's a really important crosscutting point. Another question that came up from an audience member earlier is whether you think that states that use hostage diplomacy, you've named a few of them, are too big and too independent of western democratic states for these countries, for the west to be able to influence them in order to prevent hostage diplomacy.

- [Dr. Moore-Gilbert] They wouldn't be taking hostages in the first place if they didn't want something. So if they were so big, and if you're thinking of the biggest, it's probably China these days. We have two that we know of, Yang Hengjun and Cheng Lei, two Australians who are arbitrarily detained in China. And this largely happened to coincide with the souring of Australian Chinese relations a few years ago. Clearly, they want something or they're sending a message by taking those people hostage. They want you to respond and react, they expect that. Same with Russia, Russia's holding several Americans. We have Iraq, Myanmar, they've got Australians too. North Korea has done this, Venezuela does this too. Some of those countries are not big important movers and shakers, but they all want something from us, and that puts us in a difficult position, but it also gives us a little bit of leverage too, because we know that they don't care about that individual's life, they want something bigger. They want some financial concession, some political concession or some prisoner exchange, something like that. So I do think they're not too big to influence in that sense because they're kind of asking for a conversation with us by taking our people hostage. But also Magnitsky sanctions are great because they are targeted on an individual level. So I don't think Australia or any other western country is gonna impose vast widespread countrywide sanctions on say China or Russia or even Iran because they've taken a couple of people hostage. Sadly, I think that would never happen. But we are able to pinpoint individual perpetrators within the system. For instance, I actually took part in a Magnitsky project last year that was international. We were triangulating perpetrators, people's identities across several countries in the world. People who'd been held hostage in Iran trying to figure out the identities of some of these perpetrators. And the same guys would pop up every time. And we know some of their names. And we actually, I personally sent the names to the Australian government and asked that they consider sanctioning some of them under Magnitsky, because that sends a very specific personal message to that perpetrator. In a way, it's a business model, and you are targeting the people who are running the business. And in the case of Iran, it was often the revolutionary guards, which aren't actually that the legal formal Iranian government, they're kind of a state within a state. So it's much more of a nuanced approach, and I think there is a lot of scope to use Magnitsky for these purposes to send a message as well.

- [Sarah Phillips] Okay, that's interesting, thank you. I'm wondering, maybe going just a little bit deeper on something you said before about how Australia could follow the US system a little more and how they offer services to hostages. I was speaking to a colleague of mine while I was away a couple of weeks ago who had also had the unfortunate experience of being detained abroad, and spoke very well of the way that the US managed not only his time in detention, but the way that they interacted with his family, and also the support that was provided to him once he was released for a number of years. And I was wondering, you mentioned that you wouldn't want to to follow that wholesale. Is there anything that you think that we wouldn't want to follow in the way that the Americans are going about this or?

- [Dr. Moore-Gilbert] I mean, some of the hostage family, the current families in the US have actually done quite an interesting thing. They've banded together and they've created a campaign group called Bring Our Families Home, and they have their own spokesperson, they have their own branding, they're having coordinated media campaigns. They've just recently put together a mural in Washington DC, a mural on a public wall featuring the faces of their detained loved ones. And one of the reasons behind this is whilst they love the Special Presidential Envoy and his office, and they think that his communication with them is excellent, they believe that there's a lack of willpower at the top in the the president's office to enact some of the strategies and ideas that the envoy comes up with. So they're trying to pressure the president and his office.

- [Sarah Phillips] I see, okay.

- [Dr. Moore-Gilbert] So, that would be their criticism, that that individual, the envoy is not empowered enough. But I think we'd probably see something similar emerge in Australia.

- [Sarah Phillips] Okay.

- [Dr. Moore-Gilbert] Given the political dynamics, yeah.

- [Sarah Phillips] Okay. I've just got one more question and then we can hand it over to the audience for questions. But obviously, I follow you on Twitter quite closely and I've noticed that you've been calling out academics at Western universities who are trying to identify protestors in Iran and then have them reported to the IRGC. And I wondered, do you think that the universities here or the the government have a responsibility to respond to this behavior? And if so, what do you think they might be able to do about it?

- [Dr. Moore-Gilbert] Apologies to everyone for my ranting and raving on Twitter, if any of you are following me, especially right now. But yes, it's actually quite shocking. This particular individual Sarah mentions is based at Auckland Uni in New Zealand, actively on social media encouraging fellow Iranians to inform on one another and inform the Basij and the IRGC to have them arrested. This is a PhD student at an Australian, at a New Zealand University. But also here in Australia, I've seen evidence myself of one former head of the Basij of a major Iranian province was a PhD student at a major Australian university. And the Basij are the paramilitary groups on the streets shooting the protestors with live bullets right now and disguised, was at an Australian university. We actually had the son of the Iranian parliamentary Speaker Qalibaf at an Australian university laundering money from ill-gotten corrupt money almost certainly from Iran, buying property in Australia, studying there. Some of these, and this is just Iran, I mean China is a whole nother kettle of fish in that sense. I think universities have a responsibility when they're giving student placements or academic positions 'cause some of these guys are actual academics too, when they're giving positions to assess who this person is and if there's a national security implication, they need to inform the government. And in the same vein, our intelligence authorities need to be sharper about identifying some of these people if they are in Australia, is it in our interest that they remain so? Are they informing, 'cause often and especially in the case of China, but also anecdotally, I've heard in the case of Iranian students here too, some of these people are actively informing on their countrymen in Australia, watching them, seeing who's politically active, sending info back to Iran. We don't want that. Universities and governments have a responsibility to protect the freedom of speech and the rights of our students too. So there needs to be more rooting out of some of these individuals and more consideration as to who we're giving visas to, and where they're also there laundering funds and up to no good on our territory as well.

- [Sarah Phillips] Okay, thank you Kylie. I think we might go to audience questions. If you are joining us online, you can ask a question in the box directly below the video, or you can also go to, as Fenella mentioned, S-L-I-D-O, and use the code Sydney Ideas. For those in the room though, we've got two roving microphones. If anyone would like to ask a question of Kylie. Otherwise I can keep going, 'cause I've got questions all evening, plenty on Slido, yep.

- [Audience Member 1] Good evening-

- [Sarah Phillips] Microphone on?

- [Audience Member 1] Better? Presumably you've had some interaction with DFAT with your thoughts and recommendations. Are you able to tell us a bit about that?

- [Dr. Moore-Gilbert] Yes, I went down there a few months after my relief and had a very good robust chat with them in Canberra. Unfortunately, I don't think any of my ideas were listened to, 'cause I've seen the same mistakes repeated with others who've since come back after me, including one in May of this year who received no help or treatment or support whatsoever, and wasn't even aware that anything was out there or possible. Which broke my heart because I've had several conversations with them and I've been told it would be taken on board. But I'm not blaming them on an individual level, I think the individuals within DFAT do care, and there are some great people who on a personal level go above and beyond and really want to help. It's just sort of institutional culture, the constant changing of staff as well. People shift positions all the time, and I think a lot of the knowledge isn't retained, and every few years, the system gets cleaned out, new people come up and everything starts from scratch again. Which is why I think we need a formal strategy and someone with whom the buck stops. Because unfortunately, there's no one individual within DFAT responsible for arbitrary detention. There's a kidnapping section, but that's much more broad and it deals with sort of non-state actors and mafia groups and criminal gangs and all these kinds of things which is much more clear cut law and order, rather than a diplomatic issue. So I don't wanna blame them too much, I think they do do a good job at what they do, but unfortunately I think having a standalone strategy in this area would ensure that other people don't fall through the cracks in the future.

- [Audience Member 1] Thank you.

- [Sarah Phillips] I've got a question online from Diane who's asking, as a young female PhD student doing field work in conflict zones in Central Asia and the Caucasus, do you have any specific suggestions for her to take proactive safety protocols?

- [Dr. Moore-Gilbert] My specific suggestion would be find the mobile number of somebody who works in the embassy of whatever country you're going to, whether that be trying to do so via formal official means, I don't know if they'd give it to you, but informally, often you can find a contact of a contact or somebody you know who works in the embassy. Try and get some sort of direct line, and have that in your phone when you go there. So if anything goes wrong in a split second, you can try and pick up the phone. I think that would've been really useful to me had I have had that in Iran.

- [Sarah Phillips] Yeah, I think that's a good suggestion. If I could add to that before I go away, I have a list of phone numbers that I leave to my husband of, if it goes bad, this is the first person and it's always, I have people in the country who I know will be seeing me regularly, which I guess if you've not visited the country is a little harder to do. But I would say before you go, try to build rapport with people who are already on the ground and who have a good understanding of the local security situation. And as you say, give their phone numbers, to loved ones at home and make sure you've got that sort in your own phone as well. Just looking to see if there's any questions from the audience. I got another one. So, yep, go ahead please.

- [Audience Member 2] Kylie, thank you for all the advocacy work that you are doing. Your book was incredible, and for those who haven't read it, I strongly recommend reading it. But it made me very curious to know how you reflect on the role of academia in advocacy. First of all, recognize that you're now an ex-academic, but how do you reflect on that? And also, how are you going now, and what's your focus now, apart from the obvious advocacy work that you are doing?

- [Dr. Moore-Gilbert] Thank you for your lovely comments. I think academia, it's a behemoth. We have corporate university structures now, it's very easy to lose sight of the individual. And as academics and as universities, we need to remember that human rights, academic freedom, freedom of speech, some of these values should be core tenants of our identity, and are often professed to be our values. But we need to make sure that it's more than words, it's also action. And I'm very heartened to see for example, Sciences Po, which is sort of the premier international studies institution in Paris, France. Their activism for their colleague Dr. Fariba Adelkhah, who was an anthropologist in Iran and was in the cell down the hall from me for a while in Evin Prison, she's still there in Evin Prison today. Their campaign for their colleague has been astounding, and it's come from the institution as well as her individual friends and colleagues in her department. Even touring around Europe with research symposia and conferences in her name, but also valuing her research work and then drawing others in and discussing what can be done, and active campaigning online and et cetera too. And that, I thought, was a fantastic model. I mean, colleagues should be free to speak in favor of other colleagues. And just as, again, journalism is an interesting example because if you look at how journalists rally behind one another when a journalist is unjustly imprisoned, we should be doing the same when an academic's unjustly imprisoned, I think. And I know on an individual level a lot of people do that, and I very much pay tribute to my amazing colleagues at various universities, and Sarah's one of them, of course, throughout Australia who campaigned for me when I was in prison, because that was invaluable. And yeah, I can't thank them enough for that. And I'm doing well, thank you for asking. Yeah, I'm quite busy these days traveling around doing things, but yeah, hopefully it'll settle down soon, and I'll have a break.

- [Sarah Phillips] I think you'll deserve one. You're obviously, you're traveling at a constant pace. It's been very hard to get a date that worked for you, so we're very lucky to have you here. One more question from from the audience online before I take another one from the audience here. I guess a question sort of going a little further down what you were just talking about, a more personal question from Margaret. What kept you going while you were locked up in Iran?

- [Dr Moore-Gilbert] That's really hard to answer. For me, the friendships and the solidarity of my fellow inmates was what kept me going. Once I'd made friends first kind of illicitly through secret communications with some of the women next door in the cell next to me or down the hall in the cell through note passing sort of conversations in air conditioning vents. And then when I was put together with some of them in a cell, and I dedicate the book to Niloufar Bayani and Sepideh Kashani, two of the environmental conservationists who are still in prison to this day as innocent women, part of a larger group. These friendships and this solidarity that I formed with some of these remarkable Iranian women. And we see their courage and their, just their bravery on the streets today with what's coming out of Iran. I mean, this remarkable spirit of my fellow prisoners that I saw firsthand in prison, I think more than anything else, that's what got me through.

- [Sarah Phillips] And that comes through so powerfully in your book, it really does. I felt like I knew these women and wanted them to be my friends as well. It's a beautiful portrayal of the ways that you supported one another in most terrible of circumstances. A question up there in the back, great.

- [Audience Member 3] Thank you, great. Congratulations on the book. It gave wonderful insights, not just into your own circumstances, but into what it really is like to live day to day in your end, in a part of the world we know little about. My question is completely different though. I read that you are initiating legal action against the President of Iran now. Unfortunately, I don't think you'll get anywhere because one of the strongest principles in international law is head of state immunity, both as a sitting head of state and as a sitting head of state visiting for an official United Nations function, I simply don't think you'll even get into court. But perhaps you could tell us about the thinking behind the legal action. And obviously, you're aware of what I just said, but what would you be hoping to achieve from it, and why or what is your motive for this action?

- [Dr. Moore-Gilbert] That's an excellent question. So sort of the way I see it is it's a bit of a stunt. It's not serious, well, I mean, I shouldn't say that 'cause I'm a plaintiff in this, but I'm not the only one. There's a group of people and the action had been put together by NUFDI, which is an Iranian American pro-democracy lobby group and the Atlantic Council's Strategic Litigation Project. And I didn't necessarily expect anything to come of it other than drawing attention or showing the world President Raisi is a very nasty guy. He's a war criminal, he's got blood in his hands. He was the head of judiciary during my incarceration, therefore he's responsible for my sham trial, psychological torture and everything that happened to me in prison. We were suing him under the torture statutes in the US as a criminal case. So we did submit the documents in court in New York a couple of weeks ago. The court accepted the suit as far as I'm aware. We were, they were, I mean, I say we, I didn't do anything. I'm sitting here in Australia, those remarkable people in New York attempted to serve the papers on Raisi's delegation, I don't know what happened with that. My assumption is they probably didn't succeed, but it was, and there was a second suit against Raisi as well by another group. So basically, the Iranian American community, a lot of them had been campaigning for his visa to be denied, which is also very difficult when he's a head of state visiting the UNGA. There were a couple of people in his delegation who were also sanctioned whose visas very clearly should have been denied but weren't. And when that wasn't possible, they started to think of other strategies. How do we draw attention to this guy? He was a hanging judge, he's called, on one of these death commissions in 1988 that saw thousands of political prisoners be executed in prison without any due process. And he was actually a judge on one of those commissions sending people to their death. So this is a war criminal and a very nasty character, and we wanted to draw attention to that. But I actually have no expectation of any real legal result coming from that suit.

- [Sarah Phillips] Okay, I think we have time for one more question. In the middle there. Thanks Jason.

- [Audience Member 4] Thank you, Kylie. I must admit I haven't read your book, but I was wondering whether you can give us a bit of an insight in what your contact was with the outside world, and how much you were aware, either through individual context with your family or through DFAT of the attention that your case received in Australia and internationally. I would imagine you had no radio, computer, or anything like that, that gave you access to the outside world, so you must have been relying on whatever sporadic context that you had with people from the outside world.

- [Dr. Moore-Gilbert] Yeah, that's a good question. I didn't know very much at all. I was banned from consular assistance for about 9 or 10 months as a punishment. So I had zero contact and banned from family phone calls as well at the same time. So no contact with anyone for a sizable chunk throughout all of my court trial, sentencing, verdict, everything, I had no contact with anyone. About 10 months before my release, that was reinstated. But it was very sporadic and unpredictable. There were certain moments where I could call my family quite routinely, but we weren't really allowed to discuss my case or anything like that over the phone. And I saw the embassy representatives sporadically as well in that sort of last 10 months before my release. They sometimes gave me some indication. I found out that my case had been made public and it only became public 12 months after my arrest. So for the first 12 months, nobody knew I was in Iran and I just disappeared off the face of the Earth. And my friends didn't know what happened to me, they thought I'd just ghosted them, nobody knew what happened, other than my close family. And actually my cellmate, Niloufar, she was, I was banned from family phone calls, but she had a family phone call once a week for five minutes and was taken outside to the payphone. And her family said to her, we're watching the Iranian dissident satellite TV channels. Your cell make, that Australian girl, is all over the news. And she's on the BBC as well. And they, so it was her family that told her. And then she came back into my cell and told me, Kylie, everyone knows about you now. So yeah, it was a very kind of drip feed, sporadic amount of information that came through, and I honestly had no idea of the scale or the extent of it at all. And I was quite shocked when I finally got out and learnt that so many people who I knew, but also remarkably complete strangers who I'd never met had been campaigning for me and who cared about me and cared what happened to me. And that was just incredible. And I wish that when I was in prison I had have known, because it would've made such a difference to my mental state. But yeah, I'm so grateful for that. And yeah, for me it was remarkable.

- [Sarah Phillips] Boy, it's good to have you home.

- [Dr. Moore-Gilbert] Thank you!

- [Sarah Phillips] I am thrilled to be sitting here on the stage with you, and I think we can bring this evening to a close. I would like to thank you so much for making the time to come and speak to us all here at Sydney University. I would like to thank the audience both here in front of me and online for joining tonight's Sydney Ideas event, and the Michael Hintze Lecture for 2022. Thank you to everyone who worked behind the team. There's a lot of people behind the behind the scenes, there's many of them dotted around the room, from Sydney Ideas, from CISS, and all of the crew. The podcast and the video is going to be available on demand shortly. You can find that at the Sydney Ideas website, and you'll be able to find out about coming events there as well. Thank you all so much. Thank you, Kylie, have a great night.

- [Dr. Moore-Gilbert] Thank you, everybody.

Listen to the podcast

Unfortunately, as we have seen in my case and in those of many others, hostage diplomacy pays dividends for a regime that has very few other points of international leverage.

About the speakers

Kylie Moore Giilbert

Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert is a British-Australian scholar of Islam and the Middle East. Kylie speaks several Middle Eastern languages and has spent significant periods travelling and conducting academic research in the region. In 2018 she was detained during a trip to Iran, and served more than two years of a ten-year sentence before being freed in November 2020 in a prisoner exchange deal negotiated by the Australian government. She is the author of the 2022 memoir ‘The Uncaged Sky.’ 

Professor Sarah Phillips

Sarah Phillips is a Professor of Global Conflict and Development at the University of Sydney, an Australian Research Council Future Fellow, and Non-Resident Fellow at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies in Yemen. Her research draws from years of in-depth fieldwork, and focuses on international intervention in the global south, non-state governance, and how knowledge is produced about conflict-affected states, with a geographic focus on the Middle East and Africa.  

Sarah is the author of three books, the latest of which, When There Was No Aid: War and Peace in Somaliland (Cornell University Press, 2020) was awarded the Australian Political Science Association’s biennial Crisp Prize for the best political science monograph (2018-2020). It was also a ‘Best Book of 2020’ at Foreign Affairs, and a ‘Book of the Year (2020)’ at Australian Book Review.