The United States' Diplomatic Efforts on Overseas Hostage-Related Matters

26 Apr 2019
By Alex McKenzie
The United States' Diplomatic Efforts on Overseas Hostage-Related Matters
The United States’ Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, Mr Robert C. O’Brien visited the Perth USAsia Centre on 15 April 2019 to discuss the United States’ (U.S.) diplomatic effort on overseas hostage-related matters.
Appointed as U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs on 25 May 2018, O’Brien previously served as Co-Chairman of the U.S. Department of State Public-Private Partnership for Justice Reform in Afghanistan under both Secretaries Rice and Clinton.  He has also served as the U.S. Representative to the 60th session of the United Nations General Assembly working under Ambassador John Bolton, as well as a Senior Legal Officer for the UN Security Council commission that decided claims against Iraq arising out of the first Gulf War.
A Whole of Government Approach
President Obama announced a review of U.S. hostage policy in 2014, which led to the creation of the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs as part of an effort to improve America’s responsiveness to hostage events. The need for a review was motivated by criticism from government officials, members of the military and the families of hostages. They complained that the existing system was dysfunctional, bureaucratic and lacked interagency operability. The Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell combines the efforts of the State, Treasury, Defence and Justice Departments as well as the FBI, CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.  
Mr Robert C. O’Brien’s role reports to the U.S. Secretary of State and coordinates with the interagency Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell on the development and implementation of U.S hostage recovery policy and strategy. As the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, O’Brien’s key roles include:
  • Advocating on behalf of US hostages within the U.S. Government
  • Serving as the chief diplomat in negotiations with hostage captors
  • Spending time with and consoling the families of U.S. hostages
Policy of the Trump Administration
President Trump indicated earlier this year that one of the highest priorities of his administration would be to safely retrieve American hostages. He made this announcement after U.S. citizen Danny Burch had been successfully recovered following his captivity for 18 months in Yemen. In a press statement released on February 25 of this year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed “deep gratitude” toward the United Arab Emirates for facilitating Mr. Burch’s release, and remarked that these efforts reflect “the best of what America and its partners can accomplish.” Secretary Pompeo reiterated that the “safety and well-being” of U.S. citizens is a top priority of the current administration.
U.S.-Australian Cooperation and the war in Afghanistan
Both the U.S. and Australia are members of the ‘Five Eyes’ (FVEY) intelligence alliance, which also includes the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand. The close alliance between the two countries is underpinned in the ANZUS treaty of 1951. Naturally, there is a great deal of cooperation between U.S. and Australian agencies and their militaries in hostage-related matters. Currently, the Australian and American authorities are working together in an attempt to secure the freedom of Australian Professor Timothy Meeks and American Professor Kevin King, which both are being held hostage by the Taliban.
The Taliban have taken several American citizens hostage in the 21st century. The U.S. led war on terror in Afghanistan is now in its 17th year, making it the longest war in U.S. history. The public has long since lost its appetite for the continuous war, which is reflected in President Trump’s recent decisions to begin withdrawing troops from the country. Despite spending hundreds of billions of dollars throughout the campaign, the Taliban now control more territory than at any point since the commencement of fighting in 2001.


Alex McKenzie
Alex McKenzie
Alex McKenzie is a Bachelor of Arts student at the University of Western Australia, studying Political Science & International Relations. He recently completed a placement program in Washington, DC, through the PerthUSAsia centre, where he was a research intern at the East-West Center.
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