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  • Ben Keith and Rhys Davies

If Interpol Doesn't Stand Up for Itself, China and Russia Will Continue to Take Advantage

Red Notice Monitor editors, Rhys Davies and Ben Keith write for Newsweek.

Vincent Chan via Unsplash

It has been a year since the controversial election of the United Arab Emirates (UAE)'s Major General Ahmed Nasser al-Raisi as the president of Interpol. In that year, Interpol continues to be degraded by the actions of autocratic member states. Interpol claims to remain "politically neutral" in its dealings with states but political neutrality and ignorance of the facts are not the same thing. The continued failure to sanction the worst abusers of Interpol's systems leaves the reputation of the organization damaged and diminishing.

Interpol has a history of electing presidents who find themselves mired in controversy. In 2018, the first Chinese president of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, disappeared from public view before being convicted of corruption upon his re-emergence in China. Similarly, South African Jackie Selebi who was president until 2008, was also convicted of corruption, receiving a 15 year prison sentence in 2010.

Major General al-Raisi is perhaps a little different from his predecessors. He was accused of serious crimes including torture before he took office, while still in post as general inspector of the Interior Ministry in the UAE. Allegations of torture didn't stop him winning the election, and in March of this year, French prosecutors—where Interpol is headquartered—opened a formal investigation into the claims.

Vocal concerns from many quarters that the election of a candidate from the UAE, a country with a dismal human rights record, would undermine the reputation and standing of Interpol seem to have had little impact on how Interpol has conducted itself in the months that have followed. At last month's general assembly, the elections for the Interpol executive committee, the organization's governing body, added a repeat abuser of the Interpol red notice system to the committee—Egypt. While the committee does have some democratic members—U.S., U.K., Spain and Belgium— many of the remaining eight countries are widely perceived to be Interpol abusers, with the UAE, China and Turkey viewed as being at the extreme end of the spectrum. Interpol is, of course, a global organization, but even taking the rough with the smooth, Interpol has an uncanny knack of elevating particularly autocratic regimes to positions of power.

Russia has long been perceived as the worst offender when it comes to red notice abuse, issuing a disproportionate 38 percent of red notice requests. These are often transparently political, such as the multiple notices against human rights campaigner and Russian President Vladimir Putin critic Bill Browder, or the relentless pursuit of the Yukos oil executives. Russia's human rights record and abuse of Interpol is a long-term problem. Interpol continues to allow Russia to make a mockery of its procedures with a facile pretense of neutrality when really it is simply refusing to see the corruption within.

With Interpol unwilling to stand up to authoritarian states it is left to national and international courts to try and stop the abusive red notice requests after they are executed. This does not always work as in the case of Bahraini human rights activist Ahmed Jaafar Mohamed Ali, arrested in Serbia and then extradited to Bahrain in breach of an order from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in cooperation between Bahrain, Serbia and the UAE who provided the plane.

But a recent decision has provided some hope. The ECHR successfully stopped an extradition from Poland to China on Oct. 6 by the ECHR case of Liu v. Poland on the basis of potential human rights breaches. This was the first case to reach Strasbourg regarding extradition to China.

China's systematic use of torture and repression is well known, and the court analyzed the likelihood of torture and mistreatment. They found that human rights protections in China are effectively non-existent. China is relatively new to using international law and extradition.

In recent years it has begun to engage with the legal process to lend respectability for their purported compliance with the rule of law. However, they continue to operate a system of extraterritorial rendition. The recent revelations over Chinese police stations in foreign states, in order to "persuade" fugitives to go to China voluntarily is a regular feature of Chinese law enforcement. Threats and coercion of the families of wanted individuals in China is another method used to "persuade" them to return. Beijing's show of respect for the rule of law and its misuse of Interpol is a Trojan Horse deigned to present a façade of compliance with international law. The truth is that coercion, torture and rendition are still China's go-to methods of returning individuals.

Faced with well-known abuse of the red notice system by both China and Russia, as well as similar behavior by more junior members of the club of autocratic regimes, Interpol must take a more robust approach in dealing with those countries. The democratic nations of Interpol, while outnumbered at committee level, still have significant financial clout by disproportionately contributing to the organization's revenues. Those countries must therefore be more vocal in their criticism of Interpol. Without this, there is unlikely to be meaningful change.

While there is no doubt that Interpol is prepared to withdraw red notices which are politically motivated, and there are established mechanisms for doing so, it's usually incumbent upon the victims of those notices to seek removal. As the case of Ahmed Jaafar Mohamed Ali showed, by the time a red notice is scrutinized and removed, it's often too late. Interpol must be prepared to critically examine the way that its systems are manipulated and abused.

The longer that Interpol allows the fig leaf of "political neutrality" to prevent it from challenging repressive regimes, the weaker this important international institution will become.

You can read the full opinion piece published by Newsweek on 2 December 2022, here.


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