Ben Keith, Sandra Grossman, and Dr. Ted R. Bromund
Interpol’s General Assembly met from November 28 to December 1, 2023, in Vienna on the 100th anniversary of Interpol’s founding in that city. The 2023 GA was particular consequential – though the 2024 meeting of the GA, to be held in Glasgow, Scotland on November 4-7, 2024 will be even more significant for Interpol’s future.
Interpol rarely makes it easy to figure out what its General Assembly has actually done, as many GA resolutions endorse the conclusions of reports that are not publicly available. That is certainly the case this year. But the Vienna GA meeting did clearly focus, at least in its formal business, on four main areas, along, of course, with the normal work of approving financial reports and dealing with staff matters.
The four key areas addressed in this blog are 1) admission of Palau as a member, 2) the adoption of resolutions related to Interpol’s governance and rules, 3) Resolution 10, which calls for enhanced standards in the use of Red Notices and Wanted Person Diffusions, 4) Interpol's efforts against transnational organized crime with the launch of the "Vienna Declaration" and the pursuit of a global security architecture. Beyond these formal resolutions, this blog addresses noteworthy developments, including legal complaints against Interpol's president, the ongoing debate surrounding Taiwan's potential inclusion in the organization and finally, the impending leadership transition in 2024.
First, and least significantly, there was the admission to membership of the Republic of Palau. This was surprisingly opposed by two current Interpol members (Interpol never releases a break-down of national voting in the GA) Palau will be yet another impoverished member of the GA, with full voting rights (and particularly vulnerable, given its location, to pressure from the People’s Republic of China) while making no substantial financial or policing contribution to INTERPOL. But the deed is done, and Interpol now has 196 member nations.
Second, the GA adopted seven resolutions related to Interpol’s governance and rules. This volume of action was unusual, if not unprecedented. Four of the resolutions (RES-03 to 06) related to reports from the Working Group to Review Legal Provisions Relating to Interpol’s Governance Bodies (“Working Group”), one (RES-07) concerned the “right of withdrawal” from Interpol, another (RES-08) amended Interpol’s Rules on the Processing of Data (RPD), and a final one (RES-09) related to “improving the quality of supervision measures for data processing.”
Regrettably, Interpol has not in the past released a red-lined version of its RPD, and as of writing, the unrevised RPD (dating from 2019) are still hosted on Interpol’s website, so the purpose of RES-08 remains unclear. But RES-07 (resulting from a Russian report) and RES-09 (resulting from a Belarusian report) are clear enough. Russia wanted to make it impossible for Interpol’s member nations to be expelled, and Belarus wanted to oblige Interpol to publish requested Red Notices after a certain amount of time, even if those requests have not yet been verified as compliant with Interpol’s. rules.
Given the fact that Belarus is currently operating under Interpol’s “corrective measures,” and that quite a number of Interpol’s leading democratic funders sought to suspend Russia from Interpol in 2022, these resolutions were grotesquely self-interested. Both were in effect kicked into the long grass by being referred to various committees, including the Working Group.
That Working Group, in turn, oversaw the adoption of amendments to Interpol’s Constitution (with 9 nations in opposition), the adoption of a Code of Conduct, amendments to GA Procedure (another contested topic, with 8 nations voting against), and a lengthy resolution (RES-06) on the “process for the expulsion or suspension of a Member.”
This was, of course, again inspired by Russia, which had submitted three draft resolutions that were undoubtedly intended to protect its own abusive interests. RES-06 in essence declared that, in view of the Working Group’s ongoing work, it was not necessary to consider Russia’s resolutions – in other words, another punt into the long grass. So in the main, the GA appears to have dealt well with the matters around governance and rules – though until outsiders learn how the GA amended the RPD and Constitution, that must remain a provisional judgment.
The third area of focus, RES-10, on “Red Notices and Wanted Person Diffusions and Their Use for Provisional Arrest Pending Extradition,” was particularly significant. The resolution is in essence a call for National Central Bureaus to a) “take measures to ensure that Red Notices and Wanted Person Diffusions conform to the highest standards” and b) to “encourage the appropriate authorities in their countries to recognize Red Notices and Wanted Person Diffusions as valid requests for provisional arrest pending extradition.” Interpol has for years sought to have Red Notices given a formal legal status: this is the latest shot in that campaign, a campaign that those concerned about the abuse of Interpol’s systems are likely to oppose.
The fourth and final main area of formal business was what might best be called Interpol’s quest – along with that of Secretary General Jürgen Stock, now entering his final year in office – for a second centenary of significance. The Vienna meeting saw the launch of the “Vienna Declaration” on challenging the rise of transnational organized crime, a tub-thumping speech (or “Directional Statement”) by Stock, an endorsement of Interpol’s pursuit (RES-12) of a “Global Strategic Alignment for an Integrated Security Architecture,” and the further endorsement (RES-02) of “INTERPOL Vision 2030.” There is no reason to doubt that Stock and his colleagues are sincerely concerned about the rise of transnational organized crime, and while the Vienna Declaration is rather anodyne, it is also not objectionable.
The problem is that Interpol, as one of the current authors noted in 2022:
simultaneously emphasizes the “three global areas we consider the most pressing today[:] terrorism, cybercrime and organized crime”; has four “strategic goals” (with four sub-goals for each goal); has a further seven “Global Policing Goals” (which in turn supposedly support the U.N. 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’s goals); proclaims its desire to build a “global security architecture”; names 17 crimes (from corruption to war crimes) that are additional areas of focus; and undertakes a wide range of supplementary activities (including “field operations”). In addition . . . .it runs a wide variety of contracted projects, only some of which overlap with any of its other priorities. Finally, it has eight priority areas of investment that range from “identifying victims of child sexual abuse” to “establishing a global digital identity for police.”
The challenge is not opposing transnational organized crime in words. It is cutting through the jungle of Interpol’s priorities to ensure that transnational organized crime is actually a focus in practice.
But the Vienna GA meeting was also notable for what happened outside the formal resolutions adopted by Interpol’s General Assembly. The CCF – Interpol’s quasi-independent appellate body – began to publish decision excerpts for the first time since 2019: there are now 11 decisions from 2023 on Intepol’s site. While the redactions remain heavy, this is still a welcome step.
Less welcome, at least to Interpol, was the fact that the day before the GA opened saw the filing of a criminal complaint in Austria against Interpol’s president, former UAE official Ahmed Naser al-Raisi, by two Britons for torture and arbitrary detention. This is the fifth such complaint, following similar filings in Turkey, France, Sweden, and Norway. Stock’s defense, that Red Notices are “not arrest warrants,” while correct, sits curiously alongside RES-10, which calls on nations to recognize Red Notices as “valid requests for provisional arrest.”
Equally unwelcome to Interpol will have been the clamor – louder this year than last – for the inclusion of Taiwan in Interpol. Italian lawmakers petitioned Interpol to bring Taiwan into the fold, while the view of the Baltic nations – and in particular Latvia, a long-time thorn in the PRC’s side – was made clear by the publication in The Baltic Times of an op-ed by Andrew H.C. Lee, of Taiwan’s mission to Latvia. U.S. law already requires the U.S. to support observer status for Taiwan in Interpol, though so far, U.S. action to achieve this end has been conspicuous mostly by its absence – though this did not stop a barrage of U.S.-based articles supporting Taiwan, a barrage that did nothing to shift Stock from his 2022 position that Interpol cannot give Taiwan observer status.
Finally, the Vienna GA saw the public announcement of the availability of Interpol’s Biometric Hub. Released in October, this tool “checks biometric data against the organization’s global fingerprint and facial recognition databases” using “technology developed by the company IDEMIA.” Interpol notes that biometric data run though the Hub is not added to Interpol’s databases, is not visible to other users, and if it does not result in a hit is deleted following the search. These are sensible precautions, and the Hub could serve a useful purpose when travel documents are unavailable or unreliable. But if it is difficult to prevent Interpol’s member nations from abusing its Stolen and Lost Travel Documents database, it will be all but impossible to prevent abusive nations from misusing the Biometric Hub by adding the data of innocent people to it.
At times during the GA, considerations of this sort did not seem to trouble Stock much. He was quoted in Reuters as stating that Interpol had come a long way to prevent abuse by Russia and other nations, and “cannot do much more for now to improve it.” The Reuters report was confused, and at odds with Stock’s more reasonable comment that “if I got good advice for example from NGOs [on] what else I can do, I would implement that.”
Stock appeared to want to emphasize the importance of focusing on the relatively small share of abusive (or “tricky,” as Stock put it) notice requests, not to dismiss the problem of abuse altogether. But his estimate that the “tricky” requests comprises “a small percentage, maybe 2%, 3%,” is at odds with his own statements – including in a speech to the European Parliament in 2022 – that the “tricky” rate is 5 percent. Nor is Stock’s claim that Interpol makes mistakes in part because of the lack of a “globally accepted definition of terrorism” persuasive. Waiting for such a definition to be universally accepted is tantamount to a confession of helplessness.
Apart from all of this work – much, much more than at many prior GA meetings – there was one final bit of business, the most important bit of all. Stock is now entering his final year at Interpol’s Secretary General, and the race is on to replace him. Of the three runners and riders identified here six weeks ago, rumors that one – Mubita Nawa of Zambia – has dropped out were apparently incorrect. But the two front-runners remain Valdecy Urquiza of Brazil and Stephen Kavanagh of the UK.
The Vienna GA will have been rife behind the scenes with lobbying on behalf of both candidates, though Kavanagh is handicapped (but also boosted) by the fact that he is currently Interpol’s Executive Director for Police Services. With Urquiza openly boasting of his visit as a candidate to Beijing, and the implication that he carries the backing of Interpol’s foremost abuser, it isn’t too much to say that the future direction, perhaps even the future of Interpol itself, is at stake. The next meeting of the GA in Glasgow, when the election of Stock’s successor will be formalized, will be even more important than the consequential meeting in Vienna.