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Following the recent kidnappings and subsequent releases of nationals in Iraq and Yemen, Germany is grappling with a pressing issue -- should the state rush to rescue its citizens abroad when their lives are in danger?
Yemen: the site of Germany's most recent hostage ordeal
It should have been heralded as a happy start to the new year. Instead, reports that Jürgen Chrobog, a former top diplomat, and his family who were kidnapped in Yemen by local tribesmen, were free and had landed safely on German soil, sparked angry reproach in Germany’s media.
"What use are travel warnings when deputy foreign ministers themselves consider them superfluous as soon as they quit their posts?" asked the daily Berliner Zeitung, implying, like many other papers, that the retired Chrobog had acted rashly by traveling to Yemen.
How long should the state care?
Chrobog and family after arrival in Germany on Jan. 1, 2006
The Chrobogs were the second group of German nationals to be abducted abroad in less than two months. Earlier in November, 43-year-old archaeologist Susanne Osthoff was seized in Iraq and held by an unknown group for three weeks before being released.
In both cases, extensive media coverage zoomed in on the kidnapping ordeals, particularly the government's efforts to secure the hostages' release. Rumors that Berlin may have paid a ransom to kidnappers persist.
That in turn has raised some hard-hitting questions about how far the state should go to bail out its citizens in danger abroad, especially when they may have knowingly thrown caution to the wind.
"A good state must take care of its citizens, even if they don’t think much of it. But for how long?" asked an editorial in the weekly Die Zeit last week.
Legal duty to protect citizens, but with limits
Even as the debate, with all its moral underpinnings, continues this week, experts say the law books provide some answers. Though the state does have a duty to protect its citizens, according to the German constitution, there are limits.
Schleyer was kidnapped and killed after a month and a half in captivity
Martin Kotzur, a Leipzig-based expert on international law said the notorious kidnapping of Hanns Martin Schleyer, head of the German Employers' Association, by the left-wing terrorist group RAF in 1977, provided a crucial point of reference in the matter. At the time, Schleyer's wife moved the Federal Constitutional Court to ensure that the German government was obliged to fulfill the demands of the terrorists in order to save Schleyer's life.
"The court however concluded that although the state had a fundamental duty to protect its citizens, it cannot, in any way, be allowed to be blackmailed, particularly when it comes to political blackmail," said Kotzur. "Thus there is no legal basis for giving in to the demands of terrorists and kidnappers."
Schleyer was eventually murdered by his kidnappers.
Details of Susanne Osthoff's release are shrouded in mystery
Though experts aren't ruling out that the German government may have paid a ransom in certain cases, most recently in Osthoff’s, the state is in no way legally bound, they say, to exhaust all the resources it has in order to rescue an endangered national.
"The decision to help is often taken politically in such a case and is in no way legally-binding," said Kotzur, adding that Berlin's intensive efforts to secure Osthoff's release had more to do with a political and moral necessity rather than a sense of legal duty.
"The state has to intervene"
The law is also unambiguous, according to experts, on whether the state should still rush to rescue its nationals abroad even when they consciously court danger despite explicit warnings -- an issue that has emotions running high at present.
Both Osthoff and Chrobog are believed to have taken security warnings too lightly and compromised their personal safety. Chrobog has vehemently denied such accusations.
"Though there are no direct laws, both the German constitution and the Consular Law of 1974 make it clear that the government has to help its citizens in need abroad," said Knut Ipsen, former president of the German Red Cross and an expert on international law.
"Even when citizens travel to countries despite official warnings or consciously court danger, the government can't just sit back and ignore them. It has to intervene." However, the government can make citizens pay for their rashness.
German tourists kidnapped in the Sahara in 2003 were made to pay for their rescue by the government
"In such a case, the citizen can be asked to shoulder a higher proportion of the considerable amount of money involved in freeing the person," said Kotzer. "The state has room for some legal maneuvering here."
But he added that since the whole rescue operation usually costs millions of euros, that seldom happens. "The bill that the individual usually gets just has symbolic value."
“We are lucky”
Notwithstanding the current debate about how far the state should go in bailing out its citizens when they get into danger abroad and how much the process costs the taxpayer, Ipsen said Germans should be thankful that Germany is among the few countries which try everything in their means to secure the release of a citizen.
"Germany does enjoy a degree of authority and political goodwill abroad. That's one of the reasons why kidnapping German nationals isn't a frequent occurrence. And when it does happen, it usually ends well," said Ipsen.
"We should consider ourselves lucky."