While Interpol plays a critical role in fighting international organized crime, some observers allege that abuse of its systems can lead to the organization acting as an inadvertent aid to authoritarian regimes.

The International Criminal Police Organization, known as Interpol, is the world’s leading police agency. Its networks allow police forces from its 190 member-states to cooperate and share data in their collective fight against organized crime. Interpol prides itself on being impartial and Article 3 of its constitution forbids the agency from engaging in any activity of a political, religious, or racial character. However, in recent years, the agency has come in for increasing criticism for inadvertently extending the jurisdictions of authoritarian regimes, particularly through its issuing of Red Notices and Diffusion Notices. 

An Interpol Red Notice is the closest instrument to an international arrest warrant currently in use. From its headquarters in Lyon, France, Interpol circulates these notices to member countries, listing persons who are wanted for extradition. A Diffusion Notice, which carries less weight, is an international alert that notifies law enforcement authorities in one country that those of another country are seeking the arrest of an individual. 

Any member country can request that a Red Notice be issued. Such requests are typically made by a member state’s National Central Bureau (NCB). While the evidence of a case can be kept secret while under review, some Red Notices are published on Interpol’s website. In many cases, individuals are completely unaware that Interpol has circulated information about them until they are questioned or detained at a border. 

Many states, such as Russia, China and the Gulf countries, are accused of engaging in “Interpol Abuse,” whereby states use Interpol Notices to track, intimidate, and capture those who threaten their interests—political dissidents, debtors business people, and so on. In some cases, the subjects of Red Notices are arrested for alleged involvement in crimes as serious as terrorism, but are later released upon inspection of the evidence. This is precisely what happened in the case of Turkish political activist, Bahar Kimyongur, among many others.

Interpol employs a task-force at its headquarters to filter out spurious, politically motivated, Red Notice requests. However, this process often occurs long after the request has been made, and often only after the notice has been challenged by the targeted individual. 

One example is that of Benny Wenda, leader of the West Papua Independence Campaign, who was served with a Red Notice at the request of Indonesia. After Wenda challenged the notice, it was rescinded. Interpol conceded that the case had been primarily politically motivated. 

“Interpol has been allowing itself to be used by oppressive regimes across the world to export the persecution of human rights defenders, journalists and political opponents.”

Jago Russel, Chef Executive of Fair Trials International says the problem of “Interpol Abuse” is widespread. “Interpol has been allowing itself to be used by oppressive regimes across the world to export the persecution of human rights defenders, journalists and political opponents,” says Russel. Like many, he stresses that institutional change is needed to rescue Interpol’s reputation: “Interpol has to get used to saying no to member countries. It has to get used to saying to countries: “you cannot use Interpol systems in this kind of politically motivated case.””

Interpol RedNotice

Interpol Red Notice

Interpol also contends that requests arising out of private financial disputes do not warrant issuance of a Red Notice, and that Red Notices are not considered for refugees hailing from the country issuing the notice. In 2017, Jurgen Stock (Secretary General, Interpol) assured Al Jazeera that: “Every single case that we identify as non-compliance with our rule is one case too many.” 

There are criteria for issuing Red Notices and for disqualifying them. However, as Radha Sterling, CEO of Detained in Dubai, explains: “We frequently see Red Notices issued and acted upon that meet all of these criteria for disqualification. Detained in Dubai handles dozens of cases every year for Red Notices issued at the request of the UAE, Qatar, and other Gulf nations, that are essentially methods of debt collection or financial extortion by disgruntled local partners. While we have always been successful appealing for the removal of such Notices, the damage caused to our clients by the inappropriate listings can often be devastating.” 

According to Detained in Dubai, Gulf states often report cases to Interpol that would be regarded as only minor infractions, or even civil disputes, in many countries. These can include bounced checks or unpaid bills being reported as “fraud,” which could serve as a reason for Interpol’s involvement in preventing an individual from travelling. While democratic countries often decline to act upon Red Notices issued on behalf of authoritarian governments, those governments have been known to use Interpol’s databases to track targets that may eventually enter the jurisdiction of other states more sympathetic to the original notice. This process is sometimes called “jurisdiction shopping.” 

“What we are seeing is the creation of a kind of authoritarian nexus with a global jurisdiction,” says Radha Sterling. 

A growing number of voices are calling for reform of Interpol, particularly in regard to its policies around the vetting of notices.

A growing number of voices are calling for reform of Interpol, particularly in regard to its policies around the vetting of notices. Some argue that misuse of the system should be punished by suspending states’ Interpol membership. Others argue that countries with widely documented human-rights violations and countries to which extradition will likely result in persecution, torture, or death should be barred outright from using Interpol’s services. 

Another major problem is that Interpol’s complex legal status makes it near impossible for individuals to sue the organization. Most agree that Interpol has to do more to implement a vetting policy on all listing requests, both by reforming it’s policies and more rigorously applying existing procedures. 

“It is absurd that people wrongfully listed on Interpol have to apply for removal from the system themselves,” says Radha Sterling. “It is Interpol’s responsibility to ensure that their own rules are adhered to in the issuance of Red Notices and diffusion notices.” At its 2017 conference, Interpol agreed to discuss reforms to these very issues, but the press was barred from the discussions. When asked about the period of time it takes for individuals to challenge Notices made against them, the response of Nina Vajic (head of the Commission for the Control of Interpol Files) left much to be desired: “The new rule is that this should be done within 9 months. However there is a third paragraph saying that the request chamber may decide the circumstances of a particular request warrant an extension of that time limit,” said Vajic. “The situation in the future will not be changed that much because the chamber will always have to rely on the readiness of the NCBs to cooperate, because according to the principle of national sovereignty, the nation states remain the owners of that data.” It therefore seems that Interpol’s ability to prevent states’ abuse of its powers remains in drastic need of improvement.