INTERPOL headquarters in Lyon, France. Image: T.J. Morton. As the world’s largest police cooperation body, INTERPOL enjoys broad-based international support, and for good reason: police, judges, and prosecutors across the world work together to fight serious crime. With 190 member states and a budget of 95 million dollars, INTERPOL is the second largest international organization in the world, only surpassed by the United Nations. Unfortunately, however, its current system makes it vulnerable to abuse by member states, which have used INTERPOL as a mechanism of targeting legitimate activists, journalists, and political opponents under the guise of crime fighting.

INTERPOL publishes Red Notices—internationally wanted person alerts—at the request of a national authority; some of these are published on INTERPOL’s webpage. Red Notices are not arrest warrants, but they are often treated as such by national authorities, leading to the arrest, detention, and extradition of flagged individuals. Even when Red Notices do not result in arrest, they seriously impact a person’s freedom of movement, creating immigration and employment problems as well as damaging the individual’s reputation and causing financial harm. These side effects may be justified when INTERPOL acts to combat international crime; but in too many cases, they occur in the context of corrupt criminal proceedings and extra-territorial harassment of refugees.

Consider the case of Petr Silaev, a young activist who took part in a demonstration in Moscow, fled the ensuing police crackdown, and was recognized as a refugee in Finland, only to be arrested in Spain after an investigator in Moscow issued an INTERPOL alert to try him for “hooliganism.” The Spanish court concluded that Russia’s prosecution of Mr. Silaev was politically motivated and released him. Fair Trials International applied to INTERPOL to have his Red Notice removed, on the grounds that it was contrary to INTERPOL’s constitutional commitment to respect human rights and political neutrality; however, INTERPOL declined to do so, without providing reasoning or evidence for its decision. Thus, Mr. Silaev, while granted freedom in Spain, has his international freedom of movement restricted by the Red Alert.

Mr. Silaev’s case demonstrates the many insufficiencies in INTERPOL’s systems. First, INTERPOL fails to thoroughly vet Red Notices before they are disseminated to ensure their legitimacy. Article 3 of INTERPOL’s Constitution, as interpreted by INTERPOL’s General Assembly, prohibits the use of INTERPOL’s systems for offences of a “predominantly political” character.  Its reviews, however, are based on legal analyses that are obscured by the lack of transparency in its decision-making process and do not align with modern extradition and asylum law. INTERPOL’s interpretation of Article 3, while not fully explained by the organization, results in an assessment of the political motivation of prosecutions such that even when cases are recognized as politically motivated by national extradition and asylum courts, they continue to remain the subject of INTERPOL alerts. Reviews are also too slow to be effective. By the time INTERPOL conducts its review, Red Notices have already been disseminated to all member state authorities via INTERPOL’s new “i-link” system. This allows national authorities to communicate information on wanted persons immediately, without any oversight or review by INTERPOL.

Secondly, there is no meaningful due process allowing for the legal challenge of abusive or inaccurate Red Notices. INTERPOL asserts immunity from the jurisdiction of any national or international court. As INTERPOL itself does not have a physical presence in most countries, national challenges to its decisions have failed due to insufficient connection between the national authority, which participates as a member of INTERPOL, and INTERPOL itself. In those countries where it does have a physical presence, such as France and the United States, INTERPOL has negotiated formal immunity. Under international law, it is increasingly recognized that an organization immune from judicial oversight must provide alternative avenues of redress and effective remedies for those it affects. However, the Commission for the Control of INTERPOL’s Files (CCF), INTERPOL’s oversight body, is not equipped to adequately perform this responsibility and lacks essential safeguards and indicators of procedural fairness.

Political concern about INTERPOL’s failure to protect individuals from abusive Red Notices is growing, with a resolution of concern from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and questions in both the European Parliament and the U.S. Senate. INTERPOL has also met with Fair Trials International to discuss its proposals for reform, including the following:

  1. INTERPOL should refuse or delete Red Notices when there are substantial grounds to believe the person is being prosecuted for political reasons, or when extradition is refused or asylum is granted on the basis that the criminal proceedings giving rise to the political motivation of the notice.
  2. INTERPOL should ensure that the CCF offers true due process for people affected by wrongful Red Notices by instituting the following: (i) adversarial proceedings with a disclosure process; (ii) oral hearings in appropriate cases; (iii) binding, reasoned decisions; and (iv) a right to challenge adverse decisions.

These reforms can be implemented by developing the expertise and competence of the INTERPOL’s CCF. This would include the creation of a separate chamber of the CCF specifically designated to handle individual complaints in a manner consistent with international human rights norms.  Doing so would ensure that INTERPOL maintains the credibility and the efficacy of its Red Notice system and spends its resources pursuing criminals, rather than inadvertently assisting rogue countries in persecuting refugees and political exiles.