The Guest Blog

Jago Russell is Chief Executive of Fair Trials, a not-for-profit organisation that advocates for the fundamental human right to a fair trial.

International crime: Add it to the list of challenges facing Europe and the rest of the world these days – from counterfeit products to prescription drugs. And unlike street crooks, the criminal enterprises behind these illegal operations have networks that span the globe.

What does it take to catch international criminals? Smart regulation, effective enforcement measures, and collaboration across borders to every corner of the world where criminal networks breed and spread. One agency plays an outsized role in tying together all of these components to crack down on international crime: INTERPOL, the world’s largest international policing organization.

But for INTERPOL to play its indispensable role, it needs to operate with integrity. In recent years, the organization has come under criticism for allowing its international ‘wanted person’ alerts — Red Notices — to be abused by member countries to target refugees, journalists and peaceful political demonstrators. Red Notices have been used to give global reach (and a stamp of approval) to politically-motivated acts of oppression, at huge personal cost to these individuals and to INTERPOL’s reputation.

We may think we know INTERPOL, made famous through exciting but inaccurate portrayals in films as varied as the Ocean’s 11 trilogy, Tin-Tin, and even the Muppets.

But unlike its depiction in film and books, there aren’t crusading INTERPOL agents who storm in to arrest the bad guys. With 190 member countries, the organization plays a vital role in connecting police forces across the globe to facilitate the arrest and extradition of people wanted for serious crimes.

INTERPOL has taken impressive internal efforts to stem abuses by some of its member nations, but do they go far enough and more importantly will they make any difference in practice?

Over the last ten years, the organization has embraced technological advances, making it easier and faster for countries to circulate Red Notices across the globe. As a result, over the past decade, use of these alerts have continued to rise, with more than 10,000 new Red Notices issued each year. By way of comparison, in 2003, there were only 1,378 Red Notices issued – a near eight-fold increase. This is great when the alerts are being used properly to target serious criminals posing an imminent threat, but that is not always the case. Some countries, including Russia, China, Iran and Turkey, have been found to misuse these alerts for political ends.

Since 2009, Fair Trials has led the calls for INTERPOL to take this abuse seriously, arguing that, with simple changes, it could be a more effective crime-fighting tool. By making more efforts to filter out abuses, the Red Notice would become a more trusted tool for the world’s police and not a weapon used against the wrong people.

To its credit, INTERPOL has recognized that Red Notices have been misused by some states. The first change introduced under the leadership of Jürgen Stock, the organization’s Secretary General, was a rule that Red Notices should not be used against political refugees. We understand that it is also beefing up the staff in head office in Lyon to filter out abuse. These are important steps, but it’s too soon to say how effective they will ultimately prove to be.

We also argued that people named in a Red Notice should have a chance to challenge it through a fair, open and impartial process. Until recently, this was far from the case. To address this, changes were announced in November 2016. These reforms, adopted at INTERPOL’s general assembly in Bali, are designed to give more power to the organization’s complaints body to review and, if appropriate, delete Red Notices that are political. As well as giving them greater independence and influence, improvements have been promised to their capacity and expertise along with more transparency, equality of arms and more reasoned and public decisions.

This is progress, and INTERPOL should be commended for the steps that have been taken. But the job is far from done. What looks good on paper must become standard practice. For its part, Fair Trials remains committed to helping human rights defenders, journalists and dissidents use INTERPOL’s new rules to challenge abusive Red Notices. A strong INTERPOL is simply too important in the battle against international crime.

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