The Good, The Bad and The Interpol

Co-author: Michael Polak, UK Barrister, the Chair of Lawyers for Uygur Rights, winner of The 2021 International Bar Association (IBA) Annual Outstanding Young Lawyer Award.

Interpol is, without doubt, one of the most important international organisations in the fight against crime around the world. Today, the Interpol has 195 member countries under its umbrella and it facilitates police cooperation through the National Central Bureau (NCB) of those states transmitting and receiving information and notices, the most famous of which is the INTERPOL Red Notice, which is a request from Member States to locate, detain, restrict the movement for the purpose of extradition, or surrender the subject of the notice.

INTERPOL also hosts a Stolen and Lost Travel Documents (‘SLTD’) database to prevent the usage of stolen and lost passports.

Whilst the importance these tools is indisputable, the way some states are abusing these important tool means that there is a lot of room for the reform and improvement of the INTERPOL systems.

General Assembly of 2021: A missed opportunity

The organisation held its annual General Assembly in Turkey between 23-25 November 2021. The location for this meeting has already drawn sharp criticism with the Ted Bromund’s Report for the Heritage Foundation’ stating that “The fact that the Interpol GA will meet in 2021 in Istanbul is a serious blow to the organization’s credibility and a poor reflection on the Interpol member nations that voted to award this honor to Turkey.”

Despite strong calls from the international community, the general assembly elected Maj Gen Ahmed Nasser al-Raisi of the United Arab Emirates who are facing serious accusations of human rights violations including torture and illegal surveillance as its new president for four years term. The member states which are notorious for abusing the Interpol mechanisms such as Turkey and China have their candidates elected to the Interpol’s executive committee. Kenya which collaborated with Turkey on rendition of Selahattin Gulen got also seat in the executive committee.

Seven members of its internal appellate body called ‘The Commission for the Control of Interpol Files were also elected and they will take the office in March 2022.[1]

Only positive step taken in the General Assembly was the executive committee election reform aiming to improve transparency of the election procedure, and to ensure the integrity of the elected officials for which a code of conduct draft will be prepared until next years’ general assembly.

Human Rights Concerns have not been addressed

According to the constitution of INTERPOL, the organisation shall act in accordance with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and is forbidden from undertaking ‘any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character’.

The difficulty is that the organisation has quite a few member states that do not respect human rights, even at their most fundamental s. Accordingly, they misuse INTERPOL’s tools to hunt down their critics abroad. Countries such as China, Turkey, Belarus, and Russia constantly request Red Notices from the organisations to have their critics abroad arrested. And indeed, they are often successful as was the cases when Moroccan authorities detained 33-year-old ethnic Uyghur Yidiresi Aishan, on upon a Chinese requested notice and Kenyan authorities detained Selahattin Gülen, a Turkish national and US resident, upon a red notice published at the request of Turkey.

Although there is some awareness of the abuse of the notice system, abuse of the SLTD database is also a common occurrence as it is a strong tool in the hands of autocratic regimes intent on harassing dissidents abroad. Further, as there is not a filter mechanism for registering a passport on SLTD database as lost or stolen states have taken advantage of this.  For example, Turkey in 2016 registered a bulk of 60,000 passports as invalid on the SLTD database. Since then, Turkey has aggressively been continuing to abuse the SLTD database.

As Interpol fails to address this abusive conduct criticism and calls for sanctions on these states in the international community grows. At the extreme end, Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act introduced to the US Senate aims to push the US government to respond to the “fraudulent use of INTERPOL mechanisms, and protect the U.S. justice system from INTERPOL abuse.”

Although the Commission for the Control of Interpol’s Files provides some filtering function against abusive or undue notice request, there is an essential need that appeals against already published notices should be considered more rapidly, as often the subject person is extradited before his/her appeal against a Red Notice is considered.

In order to prevent misuse of its mechanisms, INTERPOL General Assembly should have made reforms to ensure more transparency about its internal procedures and provide the public with regular reports on member states’ attempts to carry out abusive conducts, however, nothing was made to address this problem.

General Assembly also failed to address the abusive use of SLTD database that could be prevented by  an effective filtering mechanism, and rapid response to the requests for the deletion or removal of data on the SLTD database, as under the current rules, this procedure can take as long as nine months. Rather than addressing these problems, General assembly elected the representatives of abusive states to its governing body.

Compensation fund for victims is not in the horizon

Under the current rules, the only remedy for the victims of INTERPOL abuses is to have the data about themselves removed from the INTERPOL database. However, victims don’t have any rights to any damages. Imagine you are dissident living abroad, and that whist whilst on a short stopover custom police prevented you from boarding your scheduled flight because your Government registered your passport to Interpol’s SLTD database

A request to have data removed can take as long as nine months, and the subject would have to wait in a foreign country until the data about their passport was removed. And eventually, even if the records are deleted, the individual involved, does not have any effective remedy to get compensation for their flight tickets, accommodation costs, and legal fees. The Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe has been calling for the creation of compensation fund for the victims of INTERPOL abuses for some time, however, there is not yet any action in this regard

Another idea would be for Member States, who abuse the INTERPOL system regularly, to be suspended for a short period within which would be not allowed to make any further requests.

Need for a Democratic Countries Caucus

Yet, Interpol is a member-driven organisation, it therefore cannot address these problems by its own. As recommended in the recent Civil Society Resolution that was signed by more than 60 NGOs and civil society leader, A caucus consisting of democratic member states would be a good initiative to push for more reforms, to ensure that law abiding candidates are elected to the appellate body and executive posts, and also to name and shame abusive countries. Unfortunately, this chance was also missed as no initiative was taken during 89th General Assembly.