Despite reforms that the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) has made over the past several years, further action is needed to prevent the abuse of its mechanisms by authoritarian regimes against their opponents, to maintain full transparency in its actions and to avoid manipulation to become a tool of transnational repression, the European Parliament said, according to a report published by The Arrested Lawyers Initiative.
Authoritarian countries are frequently accused of abusing INTERPOL’s mechanisms to persecute political dissidents in exile such as lawyers, human rights activists, political rivals and journalists although the organization’s constitution forbids its use for political matters and states that the organization must act in the spirit of the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
The European Parliament on July 5 approved a report on a recommendation prepared by its Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee to strengthen INTERPOL’s ability to stop authoritarian regimes from abusing its tools. A total of 607 MEPs voted in favor of the recommendation, which sets out the European Parliament’s positions on the EU’s cooperation agreement with INTERPOL, highlighting the need for more transparency and effective procedures to prevent Red Notice abuse.
“[The European Parliament s]tresses, with a view to future cooperation, that despite recent reforms, transparency and accountability remain a challenge both at the individual and the organizational level in Interpol, as does a lack of available statistical information on the operation of its notices and diffusions system; calls, therefore, on the Commission, to ensure commitment and guarantees from Interpol that it will further develop the necessary structures and rules, as well as substantive tools allowing consistent and transparent processing of requests, reviews, challenges, corrections and deletions;” (§29 of the EP report)
According to Yasha Maccanico, a researcher at Statewatch, a London-based nonprofit that monitors civil liberties and other issues in the European Union, the misuse of INTERPOL Red Notices by authoritarian states enacting expansive criminalization that targets civil society actors, human rights defenders and political opposition by framing their work as organized crime, terrorism and/or subversion is a concrete problem that fits within a wider picture and needs to be addressed.
Maccanico told The Arrested Lawyers Initiative that the reach of repressive activities by states, police and law enforcement authorities in the fields of police cooperation and information exchange (automated or otherwise), as well as migration and refugee policy appears to be expanding, enabling them to pursue repressive strategies against dissidents beyond their borders.
Based on an INTERPOL Red Notice, it is possible for people to face a freeze of their assets, revocation of their passports or restriction of their movement in addition to suffering damage to their reputation due to being labelled as an international criminal.
Maccanico cited China, Russia, Turkey and North African countries such as Tunisia and Egypt as examples where authoritarian drifts are underway or are becoming consolidated.
Turkey is among the countries that are harshly criticized for abusing the International Notice System, such as Red Notices and diffusions, to target political opponents who have done nothing more than criticize the government. Similarly, the Turkish government is also accused of abusing INTERPOL’s Stolen and Lost Travel Documents Database by filing tens of thousands of notifications for critics and opponents who, in many instances, were not even aware that their passports had been invalidated.
“INTERPOL has been aware of this issue for a long time, so the question is whether it is unwilling or unable to deal with the misuse of Red Notices by authoritarian states,” Maccanico said.
The report on a recommendation adopted by the European Parliament last week also called on the European Commission to push INTERPOL to improve its capacity to identify and eliminate abusive Red Notices while highlighting the need for more legal safeguards, more transparency and better implementation of reforms that are aimed at eliminating the flaws in INTERPOL mechanisms.
With regards to the lack of full transparency in INTERPOL’s actions, the recommendation said scarce information is made available by the organization on the manner in which it reviews Red Notices, its administrative ability to do so and the outcomes of these reviews, which all lead to a lack of transparency regarding how INTERPOL works towards effectively countering politically motivated Red Notices.
Yuriy L. Nemets, a US lawyer and founder of the Red Notice Abuse Report who has expertise on INTERPOL and extradition defense, is also of the belief that INTERPOL, under pressure from human rights activists and advocacy organizations, has carried out some reforms over the past several years; however, those reforms have not addressed a number of issues with its redress mechanism for the victims of abuse, which he said was flawed from the very beginning.
According to Nemets, the review of Red Notices by the INTERPOL General Secretariat has a very limited scope, and, as a result, INTERPOL is rarely able to recognize abusive Red Notices before approving their publication.
As for diffusions, he said government requests for diffusions can be disseminated via INTERPOL for the same aim as Red Notices; however, unlike Red Notices, diffusions can be disseminated by governments without pre-publication screening by INTERPOL.
“The organization’s rules do not provide for any meaningful differences between Red Notices and diffusions that would force governments to resort to diffusions in exceptional cases only and thereby limit their number,” he said.
Referring to a meeting between representatives of the European Union and INTERPOL officials in November 2017, Nemets said INTERPOL officials reportedly claimed that its Notices and Diffusions Task Force, a team comprising 30-40 staff members, was reviewing up to 40,000 Red Notices recorded in the organization’s databases to determine if they were politically motivated. He said it looks very unlikely for the organization to be able to deal with such a heavy workload even if its staff and funding were significantly increased and conduct the review of government requests in an objective and effective manner to find out whether they are politically motivated.
A major criticism directed at INTERPOL by Nemets is the failure of its task force to go far beyond what is already recorded in the organization’s databases concerning a government request and collect objective information about all of the circumstances of a case because INTERPOL’s rules prohibit the organization from disclosing to individuals without the governments’ consent that they are on the international wanted list. In most cases, INTERPOL has to look to a government alone for information about a criminal case and to whatever information the task force was able to find in open sources, if any.
“It is hard to imagine an oppressive regime using INTERPOL to persecute rather than prosecute being interested in an objective review of its conduct. Additionally, there is no publicly available information on the requirements that the task force’s staff must meet or the methodologies or procedures that it must follow, if any, or on the results of the task force’s work,” said Nemets, referring to the shortcomings of INTERPOL’s review mechanism.
The recommendation adopted in Strasbourg last week also highlighted the need for INTERPOL to publish statistical data, including details of the countries that issue Red Notices that are denied and the reasons for these denials, a view also voiced by Nemets.
The lawyer said although the Commission for the Control of INTERPOL’s Files (CCF), an independent, impartial body officially responsible for ensuring that the processing of personal data by INTERPOL complies with the applicable rules, is empowered to publish information on countries-abusers, the extent of their misconduct and the number of complaints it has approved against each member country as well as the nature of its violations, the CCF chooses “not to exercise this power.”
Brussels-based human rights lawyer Ali Yildiz and UK barrister Michael Polak said in a blogpost that “Under the current rules, the only remedy for the victims of INTERPOL abuses is to have the data about themselves removed from the INTERPOL database. However, victims don’t have any rights to any damages.
“A request to have data removed can take as long as nine months … even if the records are deleted, the individual involved does not have any effective remedy to get compensation for their flight tickets, accommodation costs and legal fees. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has been calling for the creation of a compensation fund for the victims of INTERPOL abuses for some time; however, there has not yet been any action in this regard.”
In November 2021 the Italian Federation for Human Rights and The Arrested Lawyers Initiative led 45 NGOs and scores of activists in adopting a Civil Society Resolution to call on the INTERPOL General Assembly to act for further reforms.