On July 19, 2022, President Biden issued Executive Order (EO) 14078 to strengthen the US Government’s efforts to combat and deter hostage-taking and wrongful detention of US nationals abroad.  Issued pursuant to the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act (Levinson Act), the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, and other authorities, EO 14078 strengthens existing hostage recovery activities and infrastructure and authorizes the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of the Treasury and the Attorney General, to impose blocking sanctions on persons determined to be responsible for or complicit in, to have directly or indirectly engaged in, or to be responsible for ordering, controlling, or otherwise directing, the hostage-taking of a United States national or the wrongful detention of a United States national abroad, or to have attempted to engage in such activity.

EO 14078 also authorizes the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State and the Attorney General, to impose further blocking sanctions on persons determined to have materially assisted any activities described above or persons blocked under EO 14078, or to be owned or controlled by such persons, or to have attempted to provide material assistance to such persons or to the hostage-taking or wrongful detention of a United States national.

The Secretary of State will determine whether a detention is wrongful under criteria set forth in the Levinson Act.  The EO defines hostage-taking to mean the unlawful abduction or holding of a person or persons against their will in order to compel a third person or governmental organization to do or to abstain from doing any act as a condition for the release of the person detained.

In a briefing that accompanied EO 14078, a senior administration official explained that the US government intends to use the new sanctions authority in a “judicious and strategic” manner with a primary focus on whether sanctions would help secure the release of a hostage or wrongfully detained individual.  The official added that the US government intends to listen to the recommendations of family members of those held hostage or wrongfully detained when developing targets for the new sanctions.

In addition to authorizing blocking sanctions, EO 14078 directs the Secretary of State to publicly or privately designate or identify officials of foreign governments who are involved, directly or indirectly, in wrongful detentions, and to make such persons and their immediate family members ineligible for entry into the United States, as appropriate under the Secretary’s existing legal authorities.

In conjunction with EO 14078, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the sanctions target “those who are responsible for unjustly holding U.S. nationals, whether their captor is a terrorist network or a state actor.” In a parallel effort, the State Department introduced a new “D” risk indicator to its Travel Advisories to indicate countries that present an elevated risk of wrongful detention.  The same day, the State Department included the “D” risk in its Travel Advisories for Russia, Venezuela, North Korea, China, Hong Kong, Iran, and Burma.