Turkey to host Interpol’s 2021 General Assembly, despite abuse of the organisation

The operation of the International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol) is governed by a General Assembly, at which each of its 194 member countries gets one vote on proposed resolutions. The 88th General Assembly, held last week in Chile, decided Turkey will host its 2021 meeting.

Theodore Bromund, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, called the decision a “serious error” and noted that, “Turkey is well-known as one of the member states that abuses Interpol most regularly and seriously.”

Turkey is frequently accused of using Interpol’s vast reach and lack of oversight to ruin the lives of dissidents, journalists, and other perceived enemies.

“This demonstrates Interpol’s ignorance or helplessness concerning the problem of its abuse by authoritarian regimes,” said Ismail Shahtakhtinski, founder and principal attorney at U.S.-based I.S. Law Firm PLLC, who represents numerous asylum seekers harmed by abusive Interpol red notices, which are widely misunderstood to be equivalent to arrest warrants.

The privilege of hosting a meeting does not absolve Turkey of its misconduct. “It does, however, send the wrong signal if the country-host regularly abuses Interpol to persecute political opponents and other victims of corrupt criminal prosecutions,” said Yuriy Nemets, managing member of NEMETS law firm and author of the blog Red Notice Abuse Report. “It might be interpreted as Interpol helping the country improve its public image despite its continuing unlawful conduct.”

“For hosting a General Assembly, a member country proposes itself as a candidate and the General Assembly then votes on whether to accept or otherwise,” said Rachael Billington, Interpol’s chief press officer. “The number of votes are not made public, nor any comments made during the discussions as it is part of the closed session.”

Interpol has an important international purpose; coordinating the efforts of national law enforcement bodies to combat terrorism, cybercrime, and organised crime. To achieve this it serves as a secure clearinghouse for member countries to upload police information via a colour-coded alert system, which includes red notices, for dissemination across the globe.

However, the structure of Interpol has proven susceptible to abuse by autocratic member countries that manipulate its communications systems to harass, detain, and extradite dissidents living beyond their national jurisdiction. Red notices are requests for the location and arrest of wanted persons, but they are not in and of themselves proof of any crimes.

Interpol’s own constitution strictly prohibits the organisation from taking action that is political, military, religious, or racial in character, but existing Interpol procedures regularly fail to prevent the issuance of politically-motivated red notices and diffusions.

Persecuted individuals have limited recourse to defend themselves. They can submit complaints to Interpol’s internal oversight body, the Commission for the Control of Interpol’s Files (CCF), but Interpol’s rules prohibit it from sharing the information contained in a red notice without the consent of the government that requested the red notice in the first place.

“In some cases, individuals are not aware of the full extent of the prosecution and the charges against them,” Nemets said. He added, that “makes it impossible to prepare a comprehensive complaint against a government’s use of Interpol’s channels if the government prohibits the organisation from releasing such information.”

Last week, the General Assembly decided to make the working group tasked with revising Interpol’s governing rules for the processing of data a standing committee. The new Committee on the Processing of Data may propose positive future changes to the organisation’s rules, but ultimately only the General Assembly can decide to act on those recommendations.

The 88th General Assembly in Chile also adopted amendments to those rules, but Bromund said, “Interpol has not yet posted the revised rules, and Interpol usually doesn’t post a redlined version, so figuring out what has changed is a lengthy process.”

Interpol is not inherently opposed to change. Reforms made at the 85th General Assembly increased the quasi-judicial capacity of the CCF by making its decisions mandatory and required it to render explanations for its decisions to all complainants who challenge the motivations behind Interpol communications. These were important reforms, but even when complainants succeed in getting errant red notices deleted, the deleterious affects on their lives often continue. 

After red notices are deleted, copies can continue to exist in national police databases worldwide, making it difficult for individuals to open bank accounts, find employment, and travel. It is therefore of paramount importance to develop procedures preventing politically motivated Interpol communications from being disseminated in the first place.

A bright spot at this year’s General Assembly was the reappointment of Jürgen Stock as the Secretary General. During his first term leading Interpol’s administrative body, the General Secretariat, Stock initiated a review of the legal framework around Interpol’s governing bodies and created a task force to review all red notice requests and diffusions.

Despite some changes in recent years, ongoing patterns of transnational repression involving the abuse of Interpol Red Notices and diffusions demonstrate that the problem is far from resolved. The decision last week to make Turkey the host of the General Assembly in 2021 calls into question whether the organisation as a whole is capable of undertaking overdue reforms.

“Far from rewarding Turkey with this symbolic recognition, the General Assembly should have drawn a clear line between its law-abiding member states and those that abuse its procedures,” Bromund said. “Its failure to do this is further proof that Interpol is systemically unwilling to recognise that not all of its member states live up to the rules required by membership of Interpol.”

© Ahval English

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