COMMENT:

The terrible plight of International Red Cross nurse Louisa Akavi provided a glimpse of the difficult decisions governments have to make.

Akavi was taken hostage in October 2013 while in Syria and was held by Islamic State.

The next year, Prime Minister John Key was deciding whether to deploy troops to Iraq to take part in the fight against Islamic State.

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He had to make that decision knowing that a New Zealander was being held, and knowing other hostages were being killed because their countries were part of that battle.

The National Government also had to decide whether to change the long-standing policy against paying ransoms.

Both decisions had the potential to worsen Akavi's position. But both decisions had to be taken.

Key is yet to speak publicly about the decisions he faced over those times, but former Foreign Minister Murray McCully has provided some context, explaining Key had felt Avaki's case could not impinge on New Zealand's foreign policy response.

There were 62 other countries taking part in the US-led coalition against Isis in Iraq, and New Zealand could not be seen to shirk.

The reason for the refusal to consider a ransom was that it would effectively put a price on the heads of other New Zealanders. That can not be dismissed - ransoms are strong revenue raisers for terror groups. Hostages from countries which pay ransoms will naturally be deemed a target.

But there were other steps the Government took to mitigate that risk. One was to ensure Akavi's name and nationality did not appear in the media. That was done by Foreign Minister Murray McCully personally brokering agreements with media outlets around the world.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Foreign Minister Winston Peters. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Foreign Minister Winston Peters. Photo / Mark Mitchell

There was evidence Akavi was still alive in December last year, and her name was mentioned by Islamic State just before it was attacked in Baghouz. She is the longest surviving hostage in the history of the Red Cross.

We may never know how much the Government's actions contributed to that - but they did at least not result in her being killed at a time when many other hostages were.

So it was little wonder Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's Government was very nervous about the ICRC's decision to finally identify Akavi.

That happened this week after the ICRC spoke to the New York Times and other media about Akavi.

After that Ardern said New Zealand had made it clear it did not agree, and then refused to comment further. The ICRC's head of operations Dominik Stillhart insisted the Red Cross had that support.

Foreign Minister Winston Peters then went somewhat further than Ardern, describing the ICRC's claim that the Government supported it as "balderdash."

It is understood the Government was blind-sided by the ICRC's decision to go public. It was not told until after the ICRC had already spoken to the New York Times and it was presented as something of a fait accompli - or at least something it would now require a lot more work to quell.

There was also frustration about the timing, given the recent terrorist attack on the Christchurch mosques. If Akavi was still held by Islamic State, identifying her as a New Zealander could put her in further danger given its leaders had issued a call for retaliation for those attacks.

The other risk was that the news Islamic State had held a New Zealander for almost six years would trigger someone else with extremist views, or undo some of the strong support for the Muslim community in the aftermath of those attacks.

What is clear - and somewhat surprising - is that at no stage did either Peters or Ardern speak to the ICRC or the New York Times themselves to try to get the publisher to hold off, as had happened in the past.

The lack of such high-level intervention could indicate either the Government believed it would be futile, or acknowledged it was going to become public in short order anyway.

As yet, it is unknown which side - if any - is right. That will not be known until there is further news about Akavi's fate.

The issue matters not just for the sake of Akavi, but because lessons from the handling of her case will be instrumental in the future should another New Zealander be taken.

That is not as remote a possibility as it may seem. Hostages remain a revenue earner for terrorist groups, and Islamic State is not the only one in town.