Pressure is mounting for reform of Interpol, which is celebrating 100 years of international judicial police cooperation this year. Interpol is accused of undermining justice and this month the organisation will discuss new safeguards against political abuse of its system of red notices.
One billion searches in the Interpol databases were conducted by police worldwide in 2012 according to the organisation. More and more countries are relying upon information from Interpol, the world’s largest international police organisation.
Interpol writes that its role is to enable police around the world to work together to make the world a safer place. But for some people their operations have meant that they are less safe.
The number of Interpol’s “wanted person” alerts have more than tripled over recent years. The alerts are meant to be used to combat international crime but those “wanted” are not just suspected criminals.
Failing to scrutinise
The organisation is accused of failing to scrutinise the “wanted person” alerts, so-called red notice requests, that are being used by some governments to track down political opponents and human right campaigners.
It took Interpol 18 months to accept that a red notice issued in 2006 against Patricia Poleo, an award-winning Venezuelan investigative journalist, was politically motivated by her government. Poleo has been threatened for her reporting on government involvement with Colombian rebels, prompting the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to issue public decisions ordering precautionary measures to safeguard her safety.
Russia targeted a political refugee, Petr Silaev, an environmental protester and Anastasia Rybachenko, a student activist. Belarus hounded an opposition leader, Ales Michalevic, when he fled to Poland. Russia asked Interpol member countries to hand over the British-based businessman Bill Browder, whose former employee exposed high-level corruption in Russia. In this case Russia’s request was deleted in May last year after Interpol decided that it was of a “predominantly political nature”.
In February 2013 the organisation Reporters Without Borders called for withdrawal of Interpol’s red notice against Daniel Lainé, a French journalist and winner of World Press Photo Award. The red notice prevented Lainé from working as a reporter outside France. The organisation said the case had “all the signs of a frame-up, with charges based on written evidence from someone who had never appeared in court.” The red notice was eventually removed.
Individuals subject to red notices are labelled “wanted international criminals” and, as a result, can be separated from family for months or years, lose their jobs and livelihoods, have travel visas refused, asylum applications turned down, bank accounts closed and loan applications denied. Businessmen lose clients, and journalists their credibility.
“Interpol plays an important role in fighting crime but, unless reformed, it will continue to be open to abuse by countries misusing arrest alerts against political opponents, human rights activists and journalists,” Libby McVeigh, Fair Trials Internationals’ head of law reform, said.
Fair Trials International assist individuals facing trial in a country other than their own. The organisation has called for Interpol to protect itself against political abuse to ensure that genuine fugitives are targeted, and not those whose only “crime” is political opposition.
This month a report will be put before Interpol’s Executive Committee to propose the creation of a working group to review the work of Interpol’s appeals body and propose reforms, according to Interpol’s chief press officer Rachael Billington.
“No system is invulnerable to mistakes and Interpol is constantly reviewing and refining its systems, ” Rachael Billington said.
Libby McVeigh from Fair Trials International welcomes the move.
“We hope this working group will be a first step towards new safeguards that provide effective redress for victims of abuse, ” she said.
For now, people getting caught up in Interpol’s system have no independent court they can turn to for redress, they can only request a review by a commission funded by Interpol. Those on the Interpol commission are three data protection experts from Canada, Ireland and Mauritius, a French academic and a Turkish police chief. None of them are political specialists or experts in human rights. The commission takes several months to make up its mind and does not give reasons for its decisions.
According to Fair Trials International Interpol does not have the resources, capacity or expertise to handle the complaints from people on Interpol’s fugitives list who say they are targets of political prosecutions.
There has been mounting international concern about political abuse of Interpol’s systems. The United Nations High Commissioner for refugees raised the issue in 2008.
On January 31 this year the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, PACE, underlined concerns and called on countries to exercise caution in arresting those subject to Interpol alerts. In December last year the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmström, confirmed that the Commission is aware of specific cases in which allegedly politically-motivated requests were made for the arrest of wanted persons. The European Commission recently agreed to hold talks with Interpol, responding to several EU parliamentarians increasingly concerned about refugees and exiles in Europe.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, has also called attention to the abuse of Interpol’s red notice system claiming states undermine the credibility of Interpol “by placing politically motivated or otherwise inappropriate notices in its system”. Interpol has declined to comment on this.
A red notice is not an arrest warrant but many states consider it a sufficient legal basis for provisional arrest. 8, 136 red notices were given out in 2012, an increase of 160 percent since 2008. In 2005 only 2,343 red notices were issued according to Interpol.
In 2011, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a non-profit investigative journalism project, analysed a snapshot of all public red notices on Interpol’s website, as on Dec. 10, 2010. More than 2,200 of the 7,622 red notices were from countries that provide no political rights or civil liberties, according to the organisation Freedom House. Nearly half the red notices studied, 3,600, were from countries Transparency International ranks among the most corrupt.
Until 2008 police agencies had to apply directly to Interpol for a red notice. Today, to save time and money, every red notice request is submitted directly by the police agencies themselves. Police around the world see those notices before Interpol reviews them.
On July 1, 2012, a new resolution governing Interpol’s red notice system came into effect aiming to ensure that publication and circulation of red notices conform to high standards. But according to Fair Trials International, the reform does not go far enough.
Interpol is a unique body with no independent administrative, judicial or parliamentary oversight. It is an organisation with 190 member states and an annual budget of 96 million dollars. According to its constitution Interpol is required to comply with “the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. Interpol’s constitution also prohibits “activities of a political, military, religious or racial character”. This is referred to on Interpol’s website as the “neutrality” principle, and a prohibition taken extremely serious by Interpol according to Interpol’s chief press officer Rachael Billington.