Interpol and Immunity: The UK Agrees Treaty
A powerful conduit for international cooperation in the pursuit of justice, but Interpol's immunity hampers the very essence of that justice by impeding the accountability of those who weaponise or manipulate Interpol’s systems.
Photo by Nicolas Jossi
Last month saw the announcement of Glasgow as the host city for the 2024 Interpol General Assembly. The Assembly will meet in November of next year. The General Assembly is Interpol’s supreme governing body and it meets every year to “ensure that Interpol’s activities correspond to the needs” of its member countries.
The annual jamboree sees Interpol make decisions on policies, resources and finance and is also the event at which Interpol elects its most senior officials including the Secretary General, the Executive Committee as well as the members of the Commission for Control of Interpol’s Files. The current Secretary General of Interpol, Jürgen Stock was elected for a final five-year term in 2019 so next year’s event should also see the election of a new Secretary General.
With a change of leadership in the offing, and the hosting of the General Assembly on the home turf of the writers of this blog, the forthcoming General Assembly offers a useful moment at which to analyse some of the reforms that might be considered in the run-up.
As coincidence would have it, only a few weeks before the announcement of the Glasgow General Assembly, the UK agreed a Treaty with Interpol, giving the organisation and its officials immunity from legal proceedings in the UK. The Treaty was, perhaps unsurprisingly, agreed in part to allow the UK to host the General Assembly and the UK/Interpol: Agreement on the Privileges and Immunities of Interpol on the Territory of the UK Treaty will be ratified and brought into force likely before autumn 2023. As the UK’s own explanatory memorandum on the Agreement provides: “It is necessary to grant Interpol a certain set of privileges and immunities covering their activities in the UK.”
The granting of immunities to Interpol is nothing novel – the “Headquarters Agreement” concluded between Interpol and the Government of France, as well agreements with other governments on whose territory Interpol has premises set out a number of privileges and immunities which host countries grant to Interpol to allow Interpol to fulfil its mission.
In broad terms, those immunities mean that national courts or other tribunals may not exercise jurisdiction or intervene in cases related to Interpol Red Notices, diffusions or other data which is processed via the Interpol systems. In the US, as recently as 2022, Courts there affirmed judicial findings that Interpol is immune from suit as a public international organisation, within the provisions of the International Organizations Immunities Act, meaning that Interpol has “the same immunity from suit extended to foreign sovereigns”.
Whilst there have been various recent attempts to penetrate Interpol’s immunity – for example, a complaint lodged in France against Interpol President Major General al-Raisi, accused of torture, Interpol’s immunity has so far remained unyielding, and the authors of this blog are unaware of any successful attempts to bring claims against Interpol for the improper issuance of Red Notices or otherwise to challenge improper or unlawful exercise of Interpol’s powers.
Readers of this blog will know all too well the devastating impact that an improperly issued Red Notice may have, ranging from profound restriction on liberty to prolonged incarceration in conditions of torture and even death.
In short, given Interpol’s strategic and effective deployment of treaties with host nations around the world, it remains impossible to hold Interpol to account for its actions in a judicial context. Notwithstanding Interpol’s repeated refrain that the Red Notice system and the checks and balances afforded by the CCF means that the system is working well, a cursory analysis of both the volume of Red Notices which are deleted - as well as the consequences that we see in individual cases - clearly demonstrates that the system is very far from perfect and needs reform.
Immunity is undoubtedly necessary for international organisations such as Interpol to carry out their vital work. Yet Interpol’s immunity appears to extend far beyond limits which might otherwise be reasonable in domestic police forces or information gathering organisations.
Whilst, as we have repeatedly written, Interpol is not a police force, the role that it carries out represents a vital aspect of international policing and effectively extends the reach of a police force in country A into the territory of country B. Interpol would undoubtedly say that any infringement upon their immunity from suit would have a chilling effect on their ability to conduct their work, or perhaps they would point to the workings of the CCF as an example of how their own internal oversight mechanisms are already working.
But in reality, in every developed democratic system throughout the world, judicial review and similar type mechanisms provide for oversight of public bodies that exercise similar information sharing functions and those bodies can and are regularly held to account.
Interpol’s immunity shields the organisation from such scrutiny, even when it manifestly oversteps its authority or engages in wrongdoing, albeit inadvertently. This blanket immunity fundamentally contradicts principles of accountability and the rule of law which should form the bedrock of any international organisation, including one which exercises such an important function.
The CCF does an important job, but nevertheless, without proper mechanisms in place to hold Interpol accountable, there is a grave risk that confidence in Interpol will be eroded further when it is exploited by rogue elements and utilised for political persecution.
Interpol is a powerful conduit for international cooperation in the pursuit of justice, but its immunity hampers the very essence of that justice by impeding the examination of wrongful actions committed by those who would weaponise or otherwise manipulate Interpol’s systems. Victims of wrongful arrest or politically motivated Red Notices find themselves trapped in a web of impunity, unable to seek justice or clear their names, and just as importantly, seek a mechanism for redress and reparation.
It is crucial to acknowledge that accountability should not be an impediment to Interpol’s work, rather it is a necessary safeguard against abuse. Striking a balance between operational autonomy and accountability is not an insurmountable challenge. By subjecting Interpol to an external review mechanism in national courts, we can ensure that the organisation’s actions are aligned with its objectives, free from bias or the hidden objectives of those who would otherwise seek to manipulate systems which can be a force for international crime prevention and detection.
In short, Interpol’s immunity from legal action represents an outdated and inappropriate privilege that requires urgent re-examination. In the run-up to the Glasgow hosting of the General Assembly 2024, this may well be the time to conduct that re-examination.