from the can-it-be-fixed? dept
Interpol has become a weapon. The international consortium of law enforcement does have a legitimate purpose. It’s there to prevent people from escaping justice just because they’ve left the country where they’ve committed crimes. It’s a worthy goal, but it’s an easily abused mechanism.
For instance, there’s Turkey’s government, which really wants to keep its top position on the “Most Journalists Jailed” list. It can’t do this without the help of Interpol. In 2018, Turkey sent “red alert” notices to Interpol seeking journalists accused of whatever bullshit the government made up in hopes of having police forces in other nations round up the two self-exiled writers the government wanted to punish.
The problem is ongoing. And it may be getting worse, according to this report from Josh Jacobs for The Guardian.
Alongside the growth of [Interpol’s] most-wanted list, international legal experts say there has also been an alarming phenomenon of countries using Interpol for political gain or revenge – targeting nationals abroad such as political rivals, critics, activists and refugees. It is not known how many of roughly 66,000 active red notices could be based on politically motivated charges; Interpol does not release data on how many red notices it rejects. But a number of reports, including from the US Congress, the European parliament and academics have documented the misuse of Interpol in recent years. Bromund says: “I don’t think there’s any dispute that […] the number of abusive red notices is growing.”
Using Interpol’s alert system to hunt down political opponents and critics violates Interpol’s constitution. But constitutions get violated all the time (just look at ours!). But vetting is time-consuming and certain countries are more than willing to swamp the system in hopes of sneaking illegitimate requests through.
And there are certain countries that abuse the process more than others. Russia alone generates nearly 40% of all public red notices, which have been used to target people the government wants to punish for reasons other than what’s stated in the notice. Russia is also known to send more informal requests via another Interpol option called a “diffusion,” which allows national governments to connect directly with each other with information about wanted fugitives. The breadth of abuse this allows hasn’t been quantified but it leads to things like this:
A less-formal Interpol option for hunting fugitives, called “diffusions”, are often regarded as more vulnerable to misuse. Through these alerts, Interpol members can send arrest requests directly to each other. That is how Nikita Kulachenkov, a Russian-born Lithuanian refugee, spent several weeks imprisoned in Cyprus, after he was detained at the airport in 2016 en route to visit his mother.
Kulachenkov faced a five-year prison term in Russia for allegedly stealing a street artist’s drawing. His Interpol alert was issued after he began working on investigations for the Anti-Corruption Foundation in Russia, founded by the opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned with the nerve agent novichok last year and is now imprisoned in Russia.
When governments straight up lie to Interpol, it can be difficult for Interpol’s vetting staff to disprove allegations or suss out the real reason for the notice. Things get past the filtering system all the time, like the case of Turkmen human rights activist, Annadurdy Khadzhiev, who was detained in Bulgaria after a notice was issued accusing him of embezzling money from Turkmenistan’s national bank. The problem was the accusations claimed the embezzlement took place four years after Khadzhiev had stopped working for the bank.
The other problem is known abusers are still allowed to use the system. The report notes Interpol rejected more than 700 of Turkey’s requests last year, and yet the country is still allowed to issue red alerts and diffusions. Known human rights horror show Syria has just had its access to Interpol reinstated, over the protests of several members. China is somehow in good standing despite using the system to hunt down Uighur activists who’ve left the country to avoid near-constant oppression by the government.
Is there an upside? Yes, but it’s limited given the number of countries with access to Interpol’s system and the abuse that’s been observed and documented over the years. Known bad actors are still being given access to the system, but hopefully the system is becoming better at weeding out bogus requests.
Under [Secretary General Jurgen] Stock, Interpol has strengthened its oversight body – the commission for the control of Interpol’s files (CCF), which reviews appeals and can delete red notices – and publishes more information about decisions on complaints. He has also bolstered the specialist squad that reviews notices before they are published. Critics have welcomed the changes, but some say the system is still not robust enough. Stock acknowledges that there is more work to be done. “I don’t have the silver bullet at [this] stage for what else we can do,” he says, but stresses that he is committed to further strengthening safeguards, where possible, during his final three years in the post.
More needs to be done, but at least it’s being helmed by a Secretary General who knows work needs to be done, and perhaps more importantly, has been open and direct about the challenges Interpol faces and where it has fallen short of its ideals.
There are no easy answers when it comes to limiting abuse of the red alert system. Interpol could kick out rogue states, but that may just encourage more use of completely extrajudicial measures, like extraordinary rendition or sending state agents to straight up murder political opponents and government critics. At least with Interpol, there’s a paper trail that can show how the system is being abused and who’s behind politically motivated alerts.