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INTERPOL reforms and the challenges ahead for cross-border cooperation

Article by Bruno Min

December 4, 2017

INTERPOL reforms and the challenges ahead for cross-border cooperation

There is increasing awareness that criminal activity is more globalised than ever before, and that states can only tackle this problem successfully through effective cross-border cooperation. In this context, the role of INTERPOL, as the world’s largest police organisation, is essential. INTERPOL facilitates cross-border cooperation between the police authorities of 190 countries, including through its system of Red Notices and Diffusions (‘INTERPOL alerts’) which seek a wanted person’s arrest and detention with a view to extradition.

 

While INTERPOL alerts are undoubtedly helpful tools for the promotion of international security, it cannot be ignored that amongst the 190 member states of INTERPOL are many that systemically exploit criminal justice systems for political purposes, and fail to uphold even the most basic human rights standards. INTERPOL has provisions in its Constitution[1] which enshrine its respect for international human rights standards (Article 2), and its political neutrality (Article 3), but this has not prevented countries from abusing INTERPOL alerts to track down and harass individuals for political reasons, and in ways that violate their human rights. This means that INTERPOL alerts have been used to target recognised refugees, political dissidents, journalists, and human rights defenders, with devastating impacts on their reputations, freedom, and safety.

 

This challenge has been illustrated potently in recent months by the cases of Dogan Akhanli and Hamza Yalcin, both writers of Turkish origin, who were arrested in Spain reportedly on the basis of Red Notices issued by Turkey, despite having been recognised as refugees in Germany and Sweden respectively.[2] Red Notices issued by Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan are also believed to have triggered the recent arrests of journalists in Ukraine, who risk being extradited to countries where they could face persecution.[3]

 

Reforms

Concerns about the misuse of INTERPOL have been highlighted by civil society organisations like Fair Trials, which in 2013 published a major report, entitled Strengthening Human Rights, Strengthening INTERPOL[4] outlining changes that needed to be adopted in order to prevent human rights abuses caused by INTERPOL alerts. According to Fair Trials, there were three main challenges that needed to be addressed:

  • Firstly, INTERPOL needed to adopt a more thorough system of internal reviews to prevent abusive alerts from being disseminated;
  • INTERPOL needed to improve and clarify how it interprets its rules on political neutrality and human rights; and
  • Finally, INTERPOL had to make changes to the Commission for the Control of INTERPOL’s Files (‘CCF’), INTERPOL’s complaints mechanism for individuals seeking to challenge Red Notices and Diffusions, to make it more effective and compliant with due process standards.

 

INTERPOL has been responsive to calls for reform, and since the publication of Fair Trials’ 2013 report, it has adopted a series of ground-breaking reforms aimed at preventing the misuse of its systems, and reinforcing the legitimacy of INTERPOL alerts[5]. These included the introduction of the ‘Refugee Policy’ in 2015[6], which provided recognised refugees an easier route to challenge INTERPOL alerts against them, and measures to strengthen the ex ante review of Red Notices, including by setting up a specialist team to detect alerts that violate INTERPOL’s rules before they are disseminated.

 

Following the work of INTERPOL’s Working Group on the Processing of Information (‘GTI’), INTERPOL adopted comprehensive reforms to the CCF at its 85th General Assembly in November 2016. These reforms include a new Statute of the Commission for the Control of INTERPOL’s Files[7] (‘CCF Statute’), which contain provisions relating to the CCF’s organisation and its procedures. The CCF Statute came into force in March 2017, and it was supplemented by new Operating Rules of the CCF in the same month[8]. These reforms respond to criticisms about the CCF’s weakness, ineffectiveness, and its lack of transparency, and they are a close reflection of the recommendations made by Fair Trials, in its contributions to the work of the GTI[9]. In particular, reforms introduced by the CCF statute included the following[10]:

  • The CCF’s independence and influence was strengthened, with the CCF now being able to make decisions that are binding on INTERPOL[11]. Previously, the CCF was only able to make ‘recommendations’;
  • The CCF was reorganised to ensure that complaints about INTERPOL alerts are handled by a chamber of legal experts, including those who have expertise in human rights;[12]
  • The rules on the disclosure of information were changed so that countries responsible for INTERPOL alerts are only able to withhold information about them to individuals, if there are good reasons for doing so;[13]
  • Timeframes were introduced to the CCF’s procedures, so that individuals can expect the CCF to make a decision in relation to their requests within a specified period of time[14]; and
  • The requirement to give reasoned decisions was codified[15], eliminating the CCF’s previous practice of providing non-specific decisions which were rarely more than two or three paragraphs long.

 

It must also be noted, however, that the CCF Statute does not address all of the concerns raised about the CCF. For example, the CCF Statute did not introduce a right to appeal the decisions made by the CCF, meaning that complainants still have no further recourse if they disagree with the CCF’s interpretation or application of INTERPOL’s rules.

 

Effective implementation

The reforms that INTERPOL have adopted in recent years are no doubt positive changes, but the extent to which they will prevent the misuse of INTERPOL alerts will depend largely on how they are implemented[16]. Effective implementation, however, is evidently a challenging task for INTERPOL, especially given the large numbers of INTERPOL alerts in circulation[17], and the limited capacity of the CCF, which was expanded only slightly as a result of the reforms[18].

 

For example, there are already signs that despite INTERPOL’s efforts to strengthen its internal review procedures, the organisation is still facing difficulties preventing the dissemination of Red Notices that violate its rules. This challenge is illustrated by the publication of the Red Notice against Muhiddin Kabiri, the chairperson of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (‘IRPT’), within months after IRPT leaders were convicted in trials criticised by human rights activists as being politically motivated[19].

 

Given that information about Kabiri and the trial of IRPT’s leaders were both widely reported in the media, the publication of the Red Notice against Kabiri raises questions about what information is consulted by INTERPOL to identify abusive alerts, and it highlights that there are cases in which INTERPOL needs external help to ensure that its review procedures are effective. This is an area in which non-governmental organisations could play a crucial role. For instance, NGOs reacted promptly to reports that Azerbaijan was seeking the arrest of Leyla Yunusova and Arif Yunus, by notifying INTERPOL that any attempt made by Azerbaijan to use INTERPOL’s alert system against them would violate INTERPOL’s constitution[20].

 

The effective implementation of INTERPOL’s reforms will also depend on how INTERPOL, and in particular the CCF, interprets the newly adopted rules and policies, including the provisions of the CCF Statute. In particular, the extent to which changes to the CCF’s procedures will lead to greater transparency will be determined by how the CCF interprets Article 35 of the CCF Statute, which sets out the bases on which the CCF can disclose and withhold information about INTERPOL alerts to individuals. Although Article 35 adopts a presumption of disclosure, this is subject to various exceptions, and the failure by the state responsible for the INTERPOL alert to justify the withholding of information will not necessarily result in the disclosure of information[21]. The transparency of the CCF’s procedures in practice will thus depend heavily on how broadly the CCF chooses to interpret these exceptions.

 

Alternative mechanisms

As the world’s largest policing organisation, INTERPOL plays a prominent role in international police cooperation, but it is not the sole information-sharing mechanism that can put individuals at risk of human rights violations. In the past fifteen years, a number of regional police and criminal cooperation mechanisms have been established, including GCCPOL in the Gulf Cooperation Council and the African Union Mechanism for Police Cooperation (‘AFRIPOL’), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Association of South East Asian Nations (‘ASEAN’) have also adopted various multi-lateral agreements to promote regional cooperation on security[22]. The increasing awareness of the need to reform international mechanisms set up to promote international security is illustrated by the campaign to reform Recommendation 8 of the Financial Action Task Force (‘FATF’)[23].

 

INTERPOL’s reforms could provide a leading example that could help to strengthen other international and regional cooperation mechanisms, and to protect them from abuse. However, as INTERPOL strengthens its systems to prevent misuse, there is a risk that states will resort increasingly to other cooperation mechanisms which do not benefit from the same levels of protection. This challenge is illustrated by the case of Alexander Lapshin, a blogger who was arrested in December 2016 at the request of the Azerbaijani authorities, and subsequently extradited to Azerbaijan. It was widely believed that Lapshin’s arrest in Belarus had been triggered by an INTERPOL Red Notice, given reports of a statement by the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko suggesting that Lapshin’s detention was made in accordance with an ‘INTERPOL decision[24]’.

 

The accusations that formed the basis of Azerbaijan’s extradition request were that Lapshin had entered Nagorno-Karabakh unlawfully, and that he had allegedly made statements in support of the territory’s independence. Given that Azerbaijan does not exercise effective control over Nagorno-Karabakh, an area with an unrecognised government that has been subject to a longstanding territorial dispute, there were strong indications that the accusations were political in nature. Had Lapshin’s arrest indeed been caused by an INTERPOL alert, this could have amounted to a clear example of INTERPOL’s failure to prevent the dissemination of alerts that violate its political neutrality. However, subsequent reports stated that Lapshin had never been subject to an INTERPOL alert, implying that his arrest was triggered by a different information-sharing mechanism[25].

 

It is difficult to speculate whether the Azerbaijani authorities had chosen not to use INTERPOL’s systems to seek Lapshin’s arrest, or they had attempted to do so but were blocked as a result of INTERPOL’s improved internal review process. While the Lapshin case provides little concrete evidence of the effectiveness of INTERPOL’s reforms, it does highlight that the reform of INTERPOL will not eliminate the misuse of international cooperation mechanisms to track and harass individuals for political purposes, and in ways that violate their human rights[26]. It is crucial therefore, that the misuse of ‘alternatives’ to the INTERPOL alert system are identified, and that the faults that enable these abuses to occur are also fixed.

 

Conclusions

The effectiveness and reliability of international cooperation mechanisms depend not only on tackling security threats directly, but also on ensuring that individuals are not unfairly targeted for political purposes or in ways that violate their human rights. Through the adoption of various reforms aimed at preventing the misuse of its alert system, INTERPOL has demonstrated that although it does not have a human rights mandate, it recognises that its ability to uphold human rights is crucial to the sustainability of its work.

 

Efforts to prevent states from using international cooperation mechanisms inappropriately to target refugees, political dissidents, and human rights defenders should not, however, stop with the adoption of INTERPOL’s latest reforms. Not only is it important to ensure that these reforms have the desired impact, there must also be recognition that the problem is far greater than INTERPOL. It is crucial that comparable international and regional cooperation mechanisms follow INTERPOL’s example, and that they do not become alternative tools for exporting oppression.

 

[1] INTERPOL, Constitution of the ICPO-INTERPOL [I/CONS/GA/1956(2008)]

[2] The Economist, ‘Turkey is trying to extradite its political opponents from Europe’, 22 August 2017; Index on Censorship ‘Exiled Turkish journalist Hamza Yalcin arrested in Spain’, 9 August 2017, https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2017/08/exiled-turkish-journalist-hamza-yalcin-arrested-spain/

[3] Reporters without Borders, ‘Ukraine arrests second journalist on Interpol red notice’, 18 October 2017, https://rsf.org/en/news/ukraine-arrests-second-journalist-interpol-red-notice

[4] Fair Trials,  ‘Strengthening respect for human rights, strengthening INTERPOL’, November 2013,  https://www.fairtrials.org/wp-content/uploads/Strengthening-respect-for-human-rights-strengthening-INTERPOL4.pdf

[5] For a more detailed analysis on the drivers of reform, see Libby McVeigh, ‘Vision restored? Reform of INTERPOL to strengthen protection of human rights’ in Adam Hug (ed.) Institutionally Blind? International organisations and human rights abuses in the former Soviet Union, Foreign Policy Centre, February 2016, http://fpc.org.uk/publications/institutionallyblind

[6] INTERPOL, IPCQ dated 18/02/2015 (LA/ 51489-4/5.1) This policy has not been formally published by INTERPOL, but it has been shared with Fair Trials, see https://www.fairtrials.org/wp-content/uploads/INTERPOL-TEXT-ON-REFUGEE-POLICY.pdf

[7] INTERPOL, Statute of the Commission for the Control of INTERPOL’s Files [II.E/RCIA/GA/2016] (‘CCF Statute’)

[8] Commission for the Control of INTERPOL’s Files, Operating Rules (CCF/100/d488), https://www.interpol.int/Media/Files/CCF/Documents/Operating-Rules-of-the-Commission-for-the-Control-of-INTERPOL’s-Files

[9] See for example Fair Trials, ‘Submission to INTERPOL Working Group on the Processing of Information’ (10 December 2015), https://www.fairtrials.org/wp-content/uploads/Fair-Trials-Submission-to-GTI-Dec-2015.pdf?platform=hootsuite

[10] A more detailed analysis of the reforms can be found in Fair Trials, ‘Strengthening INTERPOL: An Update’ (2017), https://www.fairtrials.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Strengthening-INTERPOL-update.pdf

[11] CCF Statute, Article 38

[12] Article 6

[13] Article 35

[14] Articles 40-42

[15] Article 38

[16] This challenge was recognised the report of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, ‘Abusive use of the Interpol system: the need for more stringent legal safeguards’, Doc. 14277, March 2017, http://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/X2H-Xref-ViewPDF.asp?FileID=23524&lang=en

[17] According to INTERPOL’s own statistics, over 19,000 INTERPOL alerts issued in 2015 alone, and there were 67,000 alerts in circulation that year. See INTERPOL, ‘Annual Report 2015’, https://www.interpol.int/content/download/33054/424655/version/11/file/Annual_Report_%202015_EN.pdf

[18] The Requests Chamber of the CCF consists of 7 members (Article 8, CCF Statute), and meets three times a year (Article 16, CCF Statute)

[19] The Guardian, ‘Tajikistan human rights fears as banned party’s ex-leaders jailed for life’, June 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/02/tajikistan-human-rights-fears-banned-irpt-party-leaders-jailed-life; Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, ‘Tajikistan’s Islamic Party Leader Added to Interpol Wanted List’, September 2016, https://www.rferl.org/a/tajikistan-islamic-party-chief-interpol-list/27968735.html

[20] International Partnership for Human Rights, ‘Joint NGO appeal: Prevent the misuse of INTERPOL in the case of prominent Azerbaijani human rights defenders’, June 2017, http://iphronline.org/joint-ngo-appeal-prevent-misuse-interpol-case-prominent-azerbaijani-human-rights-defenders.html

[21] For a more detailed analysis, see Alex Tinsley, ‘Echoes of Kadi: Reforms to Internal Remedies at INTERPOL’, EJIL: Talk! (20 January 2017) https://www.ejiltalk.org/echoes-of-kadi-reforms-to-internal-remedies-at-interpol/

[22] For example, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s ‘Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure’, and the ASEAN Convention on Counter-Terrorism

[23] Iva Dobichina, ‘The Big Impact of the Little-Known “Recommendation 8”’, Open Society Foundations,  July 2016, https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/voices/big-impact-little-known-recommendation-8

[24] Alex Dackevych, ‘The blogger jailed for visiting a country that ‘doesn’t exist’’,  BBC News , February 2017, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-trending-38804499

[25] Armenpress, ‘Lapshin has never been internationally wanted – Interpol informs Armenian Police’, February 2017, https://armenpress.am/eng/news/878141/lapshin-has-never-been-internationally-wanted-E28093-interpol-informs-armenian-police.html

[26] By contrast, INTERPOL reportedly blocked an attempt made by Azerbaijan to issue an INTERPOL alert against Jaromir Stetina, a Czech Member of the European Parliament, for entering Nagorno-Karabakh. Chris Johnstone, ‘INTERPOL rejects international warrant request for Czech MEP’ Radio Praha July 2017), http://radio.cz/en/section/news/interpol-rejects-international-warrant-request-for-czech-mep

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