Reforming Interpol: boldly, and from the bottom-up

One of the key flaws still present in the system is the failure of Interpol’s internal review mechanism to effectively distinguish between genuine criminal cases and those that are politically motivated.

Matt Mulberry
25 September 2017

A female fugitive wanted for graft under an Interpol red notice returns from the United States to China and turns herself in.September 20, 2017 Fan Jun/Press Association. All rights reserved.The struggle to ensure that Interpol not be used as a tool for political prosecution continues today even as the world’s premier international policing institution approaches its 100th birthday. Although some substantial reforms have been implemented by Interpol starting in 2016, today nondemocratic states continue to issue international arrest warrants to dissidents, journalists, and political rivals. The fact that this problem persists suggests that regimes are adapting, and ultimately that these new reforms fall short of their mark.

In response to these issues, the Open Dialog Foundation has put forth what can be best described as an update to existing reforms that were initiated by Interpol in 2016. This is an undeniably practical approach to the century-long challenge of isolating the Interpol system from political influence. But the question remains, can a bureaucratic behemoth armed with the mandate of international security take cues from bottom up?    

Ongoing issues

Back in late August Angela Merkel criticized Turkey for its ‘misuse’ of the Interpol system after the Turkish government issued a red notice against the German writer Dogan Akhanli. Akhanli, who is known for his writings on the Armenian genocide, and for being a critic of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was detained in Spain and was only released after Merkel and the German Foreign Ministry spoke out against his arrest. Akhanli now must remain in Madrid until the Spanish government evaluates the validity of the Turkish government’s extradition request, a process which should take about 40 days.

Since the failed coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016, the Turkish government has revoked over 150 thousand passports and asked Interpol to put more than 60 thousand names of Turkish nationals on Interpol’s wanted list. In addition to Akhanli, Hamza Yalçın, a writer for the monthly, leftist, Turkish magazine Odak Dergisi, was detained in Spain on August 3 and is currently awaiting extradition on charges of insulting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and maintaining "terrorist links" with the banned Revolutionary People's Liberation Party/Front (DHKP-C).

Even a Turkish NBA star, Enes Kanter, was detained for a few hours in Romania on route back to the US following statements he made criticizing Turkey's president. Romanian border police confirmed to ABC News that Kanter's travel documents had been canceled by his home country and he was not allowed to travel, and Kanter insisted that he was detained because of his political views.

However, Erdogan’s use of Interpol to extend his political crackdown beyond Turkey’s borders is just the most recent example of what has been a persistent global issue. Other states such as Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Belarus, and Tunisia have all been criticized for using Interpol against political opponents in several well-documented cases in recent years as well.

All of these cases illustrate that one of the key flaws that is still present in the system is the failure of Interpol’s internal review mechanism to effectively distinguish between genuine criminal cases and those that are politically-motivated. Aside from hundreds of individual cases, this conclusion was affirmed by a five-month-long investigation carried out by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), and a 2013 in-depth study done by the UK-based organization Free Trials.

Part of the ICIJ investigation involved examining all the red notices issued by Interpol on a given day. The day they selected was December 11, 2011 wherein Interpol issued 7,622 red notices on behalf of 145 member states. Responding to the data, the Center for Public integrity noted that about one quarter of all red notices issued came from countries with poor records on political freedoms and human rights.

In recent years the average number of active red notices issued per day from Interpol has increased exponentially from 2,343 in 2005, to 6,344 in 2010, 12,787 in 2016.

Interpol reforms 2.0

Open Dialog Foundation’s new set of proposed reforms are written out in relatively simple language and comprise a pithy four pages, yet the fact that these proposals are bold and widesweeping is undeniable. While most of them seem pragmatic and straightforward, reading others can cause one to imagine a dismissive rebuttal from Interpol full of references to security, budget, operational, and legal concerns.

The boldest of these proposed reforms calls for publicizing ‘red notices’ on the Interpol website as they are issued. Red notices are the equivalent of international arrest warrants filed with Interpol by member states against an individual that has been charged with a crime. Today red notices continue to be the means by which countries locate, detain, and extradite, criminals, terrorists, and drug traffickers, and people who are politically inconvenient.

This item seems like a tough sell when considered from Interpol’s perspective: it is clear that by not publicizing red notices their targets may be emboldened to travel, increasing the likelihood that they will be detained at the border if they attempt to use their passport. Furthermore it seems likely that publicizing red notices would encourage targets into hiding in the country that they are in.

The Open Dialog Foundation states in a report from June 9, 2017 titled The reform of Interpol: Don't let it be stopped halfway, “This would not create serious risks for the pursuit of real criminals; still, it would allow persons with refugee status to more likely escape detention based on a politically motivated request. Each person could quickly check their own data. International organizations would be able to monitor cases of misuse of Interpol more effectively and record which States commit these violations.”

The case of West Papuan independence activist Benny Wenda perhaps best illustrates how not publishing red notices can give states the power to arbitrarily harass their dissidents living abroad. After escaping prosecution by the Indonesian government in 2002, Wenda was then given political asylum in the UK in 2003. However, in 2011, the government of Indonesia issued a red notice against Wenda which prevented him from traveling to promote his cause and tarnished his reputation as a political figure.

There are many other cases wherein politically motivated red notices suddenly led to the detention of diaspora activists, opposition politicians, and journalists, and suddenly facing extradition to oblivion. However, it’s still not clear how exactly the Open Dialog Foundation’s proposal to publicize red notices would have helped Wenda given that if his Red Notice were made public, he would still be unable to travel and might have even suffered added damage to his reputation. 

Only slightly less bold is a provision, included in the initial 2016 round of reforms, which removed persons who have refugee status from the Interpol’s wanted list. As of today this reform has been applied inconsistently, and according to the Open Dialog Foundation, “There are numerous refugees and other persons on Interpol's wanted lists, whose persecution has been recognized by the EU States and human rights activists as politically motivated.”

Today even if the extradition requests are denied by a refugee’s new home country, they may still be subject to a lengthy detention process, and if free, are unable to get a job or open a bank account. In order to be removed from Interpol’s wanted list everyone, including refugees that are still on a list, must appeal to Interpol’s Commission for the Control of Interpol Files.

This body has the exclusive right to determine the outcome of any complaint and is only accountable to itself. As part of Interpol’s 2016 reforms, the commission was made more transparent and began to publish detailed justifications on its decisions. However, these only revealed the fact that there was no criteria or standards for achieving constant decisions amongst cases. The Open Dialog Foundation reported in the June 2017 report that the commission made opposing decisions on two identical cases.

Furthermore, Interpol’s mandate states that commission members must be independent and may not represent the interests of any state. Putting aside the fact that this is arguably impossible, the mandate goes on to dictate that all commission members must be drawn directly from the ranks of state law enforcement, intelligence, or investigative bodies.

Regarding the issue of protecting persons who have received status as a refugee, the Open Dialog Foundation suggests that a person should be immediately removed from Interpol’s wanted list if they are from the state issuing the extradition request. They also suggest that an individual be removed from the list if they have received refugee status because of political prosecution in their country of origin.

Other points referencing refugee status include, barring states from filing a second alert against a refugee; a mechanism that allows a refugee to quickly notify Interpol of their refugee status if targeted for extradition; a procedure for dealing with individuals already detained for politically motivated reasons in ‘unsafe states’; removal from the wanted list of an individual that cannot obtain refugee status based on the fact that they have been forced to seeks refuge in a non-democratic country with a bad human rights record.

Open Dialog Foundation suggests the following reforms regarding the previously mentioned issues with Interpol’s Commission for the Control of Interpol Files: the creation of specific criteria for the assessment of cases, developed in conjunction with UNHCR, OHCHR, PACE, and the OSCE PA; that loss of representation on the commission should occur if states repeatedly violate the rules of Interpol; that members of the commission must not participate in judgments concerning individuals from their state of origin; that only half the members serving on the commission originate from careers in government; and lastly that the commission should meet more regularly.

In total this list of reforms is a noble and well-intentioned attempt on the part of the Open Dialog Foundation given what they’re up against, and one can’t help but appreciate their ambition. However, this effort also illustrates the challenges endemic to reforming any institution tasked with law enforcement or security duties wherein one must preserve the effectiveness and capacity of the institution while ensuring that power is not abused.

A full list of the Reforms plus the Open Dialog Foundation report can be found here.

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