Reforms vital for Interpol's future - experts, victims

This is the final in a three part series detailing the abuse and cooption of Interpol by Turkey and other authoritarian and illiberal regimes. You can read the first two parts here and here

The world has changed dramatically since 1956, when Interpol was re-founded and adopted its current constitution. The organisation dates to the inter-war years but became a Nazi puppet during World War Two.

In the course of a few years, Interpol updated its submission system for Red Notices from paper forms (before 2002) to cloud-based sharing systems (beginning in 2009). Countries can now instantly submit and share information about wanted persons with Interpol’s entire membership. However, when making these important and necessary updates, Interpol did not update its procedures for vetting submissions, responding to legal challenges, enforcing its rules for member nations, or correcting and updating disseminated notices and other communications.

Rebecca Shaeffer, senior lawyer at Fair Trials International, told an audience at the American Bar Association in February that she first began to encounter problems with Interpol in 2011. Prior to the introduction of cloud-based sharing systems in 2009, Interpol was not commonly used to persecute political and cultural dissidents. After 2011, “we were winning extradition cases … but we were finding that once we were winning our cases, [our clients] had these Red Notices that wasn’t going away,” which was a new development, Shaeffer said. Through experimentation, Shaeffer found that there was not an established protocol for the subject of a Red Notice or their legal representatives to apply for the cancelation or deletion of a Red Notice.

Shaeffer and her colleagues decided to draw attention to the Kafka-esque situation her clients faced through the press and publicity. This worked in individual cases, but Interpol was still not systematically applying its own rules against politically, religiously, or racially motivated Red Notices, nor was it increasing transparency for those who were the subject of Red Notices. Fair Trials International began pushing for full institutional reform, submitting their first report on the subject in 2013.

To its credit, Interpol began to institute much needed reforms based on Fair Trial’s suggestions. In 2015, Interpol banned Red Notices against individuals who have refugee status, and in 2017 it began reviewing Red Notices before they are made widely available to member nations. Individuals can now confirm whether there is a Red Notice issued in their name. Until recently, unless the country issuing the notice allowed it to be published on Interpol’s website, Interpol would neither confirm nor deny inquiries about individual Red Notices.

Even though it instituted these important reforms, Interpol continued to undermine them with its lack of transparency. Interpol did not publish or publicise the rule protecting designated refugees from Red Notices. There is no information on how they are assessing Red Notices prior to publication nor how many Red Notices are submitted, how many are rejected and what countries are submitting the Red Notices that are ultimately not published. Thus, “it is very hard for us to monitor how effective these reforms are,” Shaeffer said.

Fair Trials International and other individual lawyers specialising in Interpol cases are continuing to push for broad, comprehensive reforms of the way Interpol handles all communications, including Red Notices, enforces its rules, responds to individuals seeking redress, and perhaps most importantly opens up its operations in a way that allows for greater public scrutiny.

“While Interpol deserves credit for the reforms introduced – responding to a number of issues raised in our 2013 report – high profile examples of misuse show that there is still work to be done. With upwards of 13,000 Red Notice “wanted person” alerts now issued by the organisation yearly, the urgency for Interpol to act on these reforms is growing,” Alex Mik of Fair Trials told Ahval.

In its latest report on Interpol reforms, published in October last year, Fair Trials emphasised that despite reforms and a pledge to review all submitted Red Notices, abuse of Interpol is still rampant. Fair Trials recommended that could curb these abuses by creating a transparent process for reviewing Red Notices, requiring that Red Notices and Diffusions (another, ostensibly less serious Interpol communication that can nonetheless can cause just as much damage to an individual as a Red Notice) be accompanied by an arrest warrant.

Creating an effective and transparent system for reviewing Red Notices and Diffusions as they are submitted represents only part of a full system of checks against abusive uses of Interpol. After a Red Notice is submitted and approved, Fair Trials has recommended that Interpol follow up with countries periodically to ascertain whether an extradition request has been made. 

This seemingly simple check-in could reveal a lot about how Red Notices are actually being used and abused. According to Shaeffer,  “the rules state the purpose of a Red Notice is to identify someone for the purpose of extraditing them. But a lot of times, the country is not really interested in extraditing them. They either know that they cannot extradite them from the country that they are in. They know exactly where they are, they don’t actually need help finding someone, which is supposed to be what a Red Notice is about. They are just using it for the purpose of harassment.”

Implementing effective, systematic, and transparent redress mechanisms for subjects of Red Notices and Diffusions is perhaps the most crucial reform of all. Abusive countries such as Turkey often do produce arrest warrants and seek extradition for individuals for political and other reasons banned by Interpol’s rules.

“If Interpol wants to comply with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [as stated in its constitution] then it cannot ignore modern democratic processes,” Yuriy Nemets, managing member of NEMETS law firm and author of the blog Red Notice Abuse, told Ahval. “Interpol needs to operate with the presumption of innocence. If no evidence is produced to the contrary, then a Notice or Diffusion should be dismissed.”

The Committee for the Control of Interpol’s Files (CCF), a previously existing branch of the organisation, was restructured in 2017 to ensure that members are following Interpol’s rules and field requests for information and redress from individuals subject to Notices or Diffusions. However, according to Fair Trial’s 2018 report on Interpol’s reforms, the CCF lacks both the resources and power to effectively enforce Interpol’s rules and offer redress. At the time of the report, the CCF had a staff of 5, none of whom had a background in international law or human rights. Individuals appealing to the CCF did not have the opportunity to answer the charges against them, in part because Interpol continued to refuse to release the details of the charges unless the issuing country gave them permission, which was rarely the case.

The CCF’s decisions are often delayed and obtuse. According to the Fair Trial’s report “The

decisions of the CCF contained no explanation of the basis on which they were reached, with responses often limited to one short paragraph confirming the outcome of the CCF’s deliberations in generic language.” Once an individual does finally receive a response from the CCF, they cannot even be assured that the decision will be implemented. The CCF can only make recommendations, and often compromise solutions, such as addendum to the issued communications, were implemented in lieu of their deletion. 

On the question of the annual number of rejected or cancelled Red Notices, an Interpol spokesperson declined to provide any statistics as “the number of Red Notice requests which are found to be non-compliant is extremely small and can be for a number of reasons, not just in relation to Article 3. It may be that a part of the form has not been filled out and when resubmitted it is then compliant. It is for this reason that we do not publish specific statistics on non-compliance as they can be taken out of context.” The catch is that according to Yuriy Nemets, “there is nothing in Interpol’s own rules that prevents it from disclosing the reason for rejecting Red Notices,” thus Interpol could provide the needed context, but simply chooses not to.

The Interpol spokesperson also took issue with the previous articles in this series. “Whilst we can only comment on specific individual cases in exceptional circumstances, you referred to certain individuals as being the subject of Red Notices, when this is not the case,” the Interpol spokesperson said. “Even if there are reports of a country saying it will request a Red Notice, it does not mean that any such request was received by the General Secretariat, nor that if received, a Red Notice would be issued.”

“Of course, we have no way of knowing if all the individuals you named were actually the subject of Red Notices. And that is part of the problem. For Interpol to assert this as a defence is a) unprovable; b) a clever way of turning the problem into an asset,” Theodore Bromund of the Margaret Thatcher Centre for Freedom and expert on Interpol told Ahval. “Moreover, when a nation publicly asserts it is securing a Red Notice on someone that is itself a kind of abuse of the Interpol system, even if it is not abuse we can attribute directly to an error of commission or omission by Interpol itself. So again, asserting this as a defence is cheeky, but not fully fair.”

Interpol is so opaque that even its fact-checks are unusable. I would welcome Interpol publicly revealing who among the individuals mentioned in these articles is not the subject of a Red Notice, and I am sure the person or persons in question would like to know too.