Should high-risk travelers have to pay for their own rescues?

The French parliament is currently debating a bill that would hold French tourists financially responsible for their own rescues should they run into trouble. As you might expect, those pesky Somali pirates have something to do with it:  The proposed law, put forward by a government tired of having to foot the bill, would enable ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
RICHARD BOUHET/AFP/Getty Images
RICHARD BOUHET/AFP/Getty Images
RICHARD BOUHET/AFP/Getty Images

The French parliament is currently debating a bill that would hold French tourists financially responsible for their own rescues should they run into trouble. As you might expect, those pesky Somali pirates have something to do with it: 

The French parliament is currently debating a bill that would hold French tourists financially responsible for their own rescues should they run into trouble. As you might expect, those pesky Somali pirates have something to do with it: 

The proposed law, put forward by a government tired of having to foot the bill, would enable the state to demand reimbursement for "all or part of the costs … of foreign rescue operations" if it deems that travellers had ventured knowingly and without "legitimate motive" into risky territory.

According to the foreign ministry, the bill is an attempt to encourage a "culture of responsibility" among French travellers at a time of frequent kidnappings, hijackings and civil instability across the world. The ministry hopes that the prospect of being saddled with paying costs such as emergency air fares home will make people think twice about venturing into territory classified as dangerous. There is no question of ransoms being included in the cost, unsurprisingly, as France insists it never pays them.

Several French-led overseas missions in recent years have sparked debate over who should shoulder the financial burden for holidays gone drastically wrong. Last year, several French yachts were hijacked by pirates off Somalia, with one of the commando raids culminating in a man, Florent Lemacon, being killed. Officials expressed exasperation that the sailors had been warned repeatedly of the region’s dangers but sailed on nonetheless.

According to the Guardian article, Germany already does something like this and last year charged a backpacker who was taken hostage in Colombia 12,000 euros for her helicopter rescue. 

Interestingly, France is apparently more than willing to foot the bill for other countries citizens who are lost at sea. Last month, three ships were diverted from the French islland of Reunion in the south Pacific to rescue U.S. teen Abby Sunderland, who became stranded during her attempt to circumnavigate the globe. Sunderland’s joint French and Australian rescue cost more than $300,000 but a French foreign ministry spokesman dismissed  the idea that she should pay for it herself, citing an "international obligation to help those in distress at sea."

Part of the debate over the law is whether it would apply to journalists and aid workers. Socialist MPs say journalists aren’t specifically included from the text of the law while Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner says that it would be applied on a case to case basis and charging kidnapped or trapped journalists would be inconceivable.

Obviously journalists and aid professionals are often expected to take risks and helping them out of jams is usually considered a public good, even meriting the occaisonal photo-op with a former president. It makes sense that there’s a different standard for tourists — in the U.S. at least, hikers who wander off trail are sometimes charged for their own rescue — but I also wonder if the inevitable litigation involved in determining what constitutes an unnecessary risk might prove more trouble than its worth.

Hat tip: Marginal Revolution

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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