Council of Europe highlights need to reform Interpol to prevent authoritarian abuse

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted a resolution last week addressing ongoing abuse of the International Criminal Police Organisation’s (Interpol) red notices and diffusions.

“Countries in the Council of Europe include some very high profile abusers of Interpol, so Fair Trials is very pleased that [PACE] has once again recognised the need for more action to tackle the misuse of red notices and diffusions,” Bruno Min, a senior policy advisor at advocacy group Fair Trials, told Ahval.

Although the Interpol Constitution formally prohibits politically-motivated red notices and diffusions, in practice loopholes in the organisation’s rules and operations allow countries to use its instruments to persecute exiled dissidents.

“Formally, PACE has no responsibility or right to reform Interpol,” said Edward Lemon, an assistant professor at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School in Washington, “but as an organisation its membership makes up about a quarter of Interpol members, meaning it does have influence.” 

Interpol has 194 member countries, which each have one vote in the organisation’s governing General Assembly. Lemon suggested PACE, “could spearhead the coordination of democratic states within Interpol to push for reform.”

Turkey has a long history of manipulating Interpol’s red notice system to target its citizens abroad and, since the failed coup of 2016, it has become perhaps the world’s most prolific abuser of red notices, which are often misunderstood to be equivalent to arrest warrants.

Turkey’s deputy Interior Minister İsmail Çataklı criticised Interpol on Nov. 6 for rejecting 646 red notice requests since 2016 and accused it of failing to cooperate with Turkey in its struggle against terrorism. The rejections correlate with a spike in Turkey’s misuse of Interpol and strengthened internal vetting mechanisms instituted by the organisation.

And yet, since the coup attempt, 1,168 red notices requested by Turkey have been sent to Germany alone, where a significant number of Turkish dissidents have fled. Once published by Interpol, red notices are disseminated to the National Central Bureaus (NCBs) of each member state, but it is up to each individual state to decide whether to act on the requests.

In recognition of the dramatic increase in the number of red notices and complaints by unduly targeted individuals from Turkey and other authoritarian states in recent years, PACE assigned a rapporteur to investigate red notice abuse. The assembly then issued a resolution in 2017 calling on Interpol to address the need for more stringent legal safeguards to prevent abuse.

Last week’s new resolution follows up on PACE’s initial 2017 recommendations. It states that PACE “is now satisfied that many of its proposals have already been implemented, or are in the process of being implemented by Interpol,” but also notes regret that others have not, “in particular those intended to improve transparency of Interpol’s work and to strengthen accountability for states whose [National Central Bureaus] abuse Interpol’s instruments.”

“PACE is right to compliment the efforts Interpol has made, in particular the creation of the secretariat’s task force to review old and new red notices,” said Theodore Bromund, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “But because of the lack of transparency in Interpol, which PACE condemns, we cannot know how much progress has been made, nor is there any reason to believe that efforts to abuse Interpol have slackened.”

“It’s great that PACE is following up,” said Yuriy Nemets, managing member of the NEMETS law firm. “At the very least, Interpol knows that PACE is watching and expecting it to do more.” But while the resolution does call for greater transparency from Interpol, Nemets believes its recommendations are too vague.

Getting more specific, PACE could push Interpol’s internal oversight body, the Commission for the Control of Interpol’s Files (CCF), “to publish an annual report on requests received and decisions enacted,” Lemon suggested. “This would help identify which states are persistently abusing Interpol to pursue political opponents.”

Improved recourse for individuals targeted by politically-motivated red notices is also needed. They can submit complaints to the CCF seeking the correction or deletion of notices about them, but Interpol does not have a comprehensive set of mechanisms that provides due process.

“By Interpol's own admission, after CCF rules in favour of an individual, there is no guarantee that the same government will not be able to put her or him back into the database,” Nemets said. There is “no right to a hearing, no right to examine evidence produced by governments, no right to appeal.”

Addressing these due process issues, PACE does call on Interpol to make the CCF’s appeals procedure “speedier, more interactive and more transparent,” but Nemets said this language was too general.

“Instead of more interactive, I would use the right to a hearing, and instead of more transparent, I would grant individuals the right to examine evidence produced by governments,” he said.

“It seems like PACE is giving Interpol too much leeway, which I doubt Interpol is going to use to move closer to due process,” he concluded.

Bromund is further concerned that as Interpol works to address red notice abuse, authoritarian countries are increasingly abusing other Interpol instruments. “This just demonstrates that Interpol’s fundamental problem is not that its rules have loopholes,” he said, “it is that too many of Interpol’s member nations have no intention of abiding by the rules.”

Of the punitive measures available to hold authoritarian governments accountable “there is a mechanism by which abusive members could be suspended from Interpol,” Lemon said, “But it is yet to be enforced and could be reaffirmed by a General Assembly vote that supports Interpol's power to suspend members who have been proven to repeatedly violate its rules.”

“Interpol has made considerable progress in recent years to fix the faults that enable the misuse of their systems for politically motivated purposes,” Min from Fair Trials said, “but as PACE rightly recognises, there is still so much more to be done. And there is also much more that European member countries and the European Union could be doing, both by supporting Interpol’s reforms and by acting responsibly on red notices and diffusions.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.