When Interpol came up in the news recently, many people probably asked: Interpol, of course…what exactly do they do again?
In the context of the news story at hand, a former Chinese police official who also served as head of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, had been captured and handed over to a powerful Chinese anti-graft organization, its National Supervisory Commission. Meng’s affiliation with Interpol thrust the organization into a spotlight for those who follow international news headlines. But even those who follow the news, though they’ve certainly heard mention of the organization’s name on numerous occasions, may not be familiar with its roots or some of the controversy surrounding its role in global law enforcement.
Interpol is formally known as the International Criminal Police Organization, and was founded in 1914 in Vienna. In 1923, a rise in international crime led to the gathering of law enforcement representatives from 20 nations, who formed the formal body that went by the title International Criminal Police Commission (ICPC). The ICPC would persist through WWII, during which time it moved its headquarters to Berlin after the annexation of Austria by the Nazis. After the war, the ICPC accepted an offer from the French government to move its headquarters to Paris, was granted consultative status by the UN in 1949, and changed its title to the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) after ratifying a new constitution. Its headquarters are now in Lyon, France.
Originally, Interpol was primarily a European institution, though by the mid-80s its influence had grown to an organization with over 125 member states. But today, even with over 190 members, its role remains somewhat controversial. Article 3 of its constitution was ratified in the mid-1970s to prevent Interpol from reigning over activities, even criminal ones, with political, military, religious or racial character. Though this was amended in 1984 to provide greater leeway in prosecuting terrorist activities, the intent was clear: Interpol shall not be used by tyrants, strong-armed governments, and other opportunists as a de facto international extradition force.
However, critics argue that over the years, several instances have called into question the relationship between Interpol and governments with questionable conceptions of law, order, and due process. Each year, Interpol sends thousands of “red notices” to its member organizations, with the U.S. Justice Department describing these notices as “the closest instrument to an international arrest warrant in use today.”
‘When a person whose name is listed comes to the attention of the police abroad, the country that sought the listing is notified through Interpol and can request either his provisional arrest (if there is urgency) or can file a formal request for extradition.’ (justice.gov)
There are several cases that critics point to as evidence that Interpol’s processes are not always above the political motivations its Constitution seeks to prevent. Bill Browder, a British investor who found himself at odds with the Putin government, was placed on the Interpol watch list after his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, was tortured and ultimately died in a Russian prison. The United States ultimately had to grant Browder a visa waiver, granting him asylum in a nation that would not detain him and ship him to Russia. When Russia placed Browder on the “wanted” list, the United States revoked Browder’s visa-waiver status “in direct response” to the Interpol notice.
This automatic triggering of travel right revocation shows how much power Interpol has, even if it is not responsible for detaining those on the lists. They can strand those put on their watch list in a potentially hostile nation, even in situations where the circumstances are almost certainly politically motivated. Browder is not the only instance of this.
‘Three years ago Algeria issued a Red Notice against Henk Tepper, a Canadian potato farmer, in a row involving export paperwork and suspect spuds. He was released… after a year in a Lebanese jail and wants to sue the Canadian government for not protecting his rights. Interpol took 18 months to accept that the Red Notice issued against Patricia Poleo, a Venezuelan investigative journalist, by her government was politically motivated. Indonesia pursued Benny Wenda, a West Papuan tribal leader who ended up marooned in Britain; Belarus hounded an opposition leader, Ales Michalevic, when he fled to Poland.’ (The Economist)
As of now, Interpol essentially has to take the word of its member nations, which include several countries and regimes proven not to be above political retribution, that their issuance of red notices is not, in fact, political. Many cases have proven this to be an extremely naïve tact, and one that has put several individuals through unnecessary, prolonged, and occasionally fatal hardship.
The fact that China has now detained its own former top cop, the former head of Interpol, on charges of corruption is yet another reason to question how tightly the ship is being run. They’ve accused Meng of “bribe taking and alleged violations of law” without elaborating, according to the Wall Street Journal. And, it’s fair to question whether ethical fragmentation among the members of Interpol poses a fundamental risk to liberty, considering how the network currently functions.
“There is a basic premise that Interpol’s member states subscribe to common values and mores, and will not abuse the tremendous power over individual rights given to the organization,” Ilya Katsnelson, a Russian businessman and U.S. citizen, says. “But that isn’t the case.”