The Palestinian Abuse of Interpol Has Begun

COMMENTARY Global Politics

The Palestinian Abuse of Interpol Has Begun

Dec 17th, 2018 7 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Theodore R. Bromund, Ph.D.

Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations

Ted Bromund studies Anglo-American relations, U.S. relations with Europe and the EU, and the U.S.’s leadership role in the world.
Numbers aside, Abbas’s understanding of Interpol remains as deficient as it has always been. Stefano Costantino / MEGA / Newscom

In “How the United States Should Respond to Palestinian Membership in Interpol,” a lengthy paper published in May, I pointed out that the Palestinian Authority said it wanted to get into Interpol for political reasons, and that it had repeatedly given notice of its intention to abuse Interpol. In other words, the Palestinians want to use Interpol for political purposes.

I also pointed out that, while Palestinian membership would pose a risk to Israeli officials and, more seriously, to the friends of Israel around the world, “the most likely targets are in fact Palestinian opponents of the Palestinian Authority.” The risk to Interpol, I predicted, was that it would become part of the Palestinian knife fight for control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and for the succession to the aging Palestinian president for life Mahmoud Abbas.

That prediction has come true. The Jerusalem Post reports that, Abbas recently announced that Interpol has already published Red Notices on six “thieves,” and that the Authority has given Interpol the names of more than 100 fugitives who are wanted on charges of corruption.

According to Abbas, “This means there are six thieves who will not be able to escape justice. . . . We have a court that specializes in corruption cases, and it should have no mercy on anyone. We’re talking about more than 100 people who ran away. One stole $5 million, a second stole $10 million, and a third stole $20 million. They will all be brought [back] and you will see them here in the homeland.”

It is, of course, impossible to verify much of this. The public portion of Interpol’s Red Notice database lists no fugitives wanted by the Authority — but much of the database is visible only to law enforcement agencies. The total of “more than 100” fugitives sounds suspiciously like a number intended more to impress than to be accurate.

Numbers aside, Abbas’s understanding of Interpol remains as deficient as it has always been. After attacking the U.S. for supposedly not wanting him to stop corruption (a lie: a central U.S. objection to Abbas is precisely that he supports and enables corruption) he stated that “we have become members of Interpol, and now we can bring anyone from any place in the world to court and prison.” In fact, Interpol has no power to compel anyone to return any fugitive sought by anyone.

Much of this is clearly intended for a Palestinian audience, and for the West’s Israel-haters: By attacking the U.S. and blaming so many “thieves” for stealing so much money from the Palestinian people (or the Authority), Abbas is trying to absolve himself from blame for the Authority’s corruption and imply that Interpol will be a deus ex machina. When it proves not to be, he will find another form of absolution.

But this is not just talk. The Jerusalem Post reports that one of the Palestinians named in a Red Notice is “Rashid Abu Shabak, a former commander of the PA’s Preventive Security Force in the Gaza Strip, who has been living in Egypt for the past decade.” Abu Shabak has reportedly been convicted in absentia of corruption by a West Bank court. More relevantly, Abu Shabak is a close associate of Mohammed Dahlan, Abbas’s bitter rival who has lived in exile in the UAE. Abu Shabak’s political allies in the Gaza Strip’s Fatah Party — which, in its West Bank form, is also Abbas’s party — condemned Interpol’s involvement in the case, which, just as the Authority promised, has been focused on Dahlan’s cronies.

One plausible reaction to all of this is to say that Abu Shabak is almost certainly just as corrupt as Abbas says he is, and that he deserves to spend a long time in jail learning how to make small rocks out of big ones. And, narrowly considered, that is likely true. But it is not as simple as that.

The basic fact is that Interpol is not supposed to be involved in politics. It doesn’t matter if you think the people being pursued are good, bad, or indifferent. This is a principle that sometimes cuts against U.S. interest, as there are some very bad people — like Islamic cleric Yusuf al Qaradawi — who are nevertheless not appropriate subjects of an Interpol Red Notice because, while their opinions are noxious, their crime fundamentally consists of political opposition to a government. The U.S. has much to gain from keeping politics and criminal law in separate spheres, and, indeed, Interpol separates these spheres in large part because the U.S. wanted them to be separate.

Interpol is therefore well-aware of the problem of political abuse. It does not, in my view, do enough to prevent abuse, but Interpol’s principles are mostly sound: the problem is applying them. But Interpol’s operating assumption is that, while a regime might be politically abusive, it will not be a criminal conspiracy. In other words, it assumes that abuse will stem from regimes that, though authoritarian, are not narrowly corrupt, and which will seek to abuse Interpol for clearly political reasons, such as suppressing dissidents. It therefore assumes that the victims of that abuse will be innocent of any actual criminal offense, and that the victim and the government will never have been on the same team.

In 1956, when Interpol’s Constitution was drawn up, those might have been reasonable assumptions. They do not track with today’s reality. Abbas and Abu Shabak are like a Mafia godfather and a henchman who have fallen out over the division of the spoils. They are both guilty of many offenses, including many that are narrowly criminal. Abbas is charging Abu Shabak not out of a sincere desire to see justice done, but for the same reason a crime boss might order a hit on a troublesome lieutenant: to pay him back, to deter dissent, to secure his succession, and — just maybe — to get his money back.

So what is Interpol to do when a corrupt government accurately, but for political reasons, charges a corrupt official from its ranks with corruption? The charge is just, but it is is being made for unjust reasons. The government’s motives are impure — but if you assume (as Interpol does) that the Palestinian Authority has as much right to be in Interpol as Sweden does, then its motives do not matter. All that matters is the accuracy of the charge and whether it is inherently political.

Interpol has published a substantial “Repository of Practice” on how it understands the problem of political abuse — but the relevant cases concern former politicians who are sought by Red Notices on charges of corruption by political opponents, not supposedly apolitical security officials who are being sought by the leader of their own political party.

Moreover, the “Repository” argues that corruption for personal gain, not political advantage, is a real offense, not a political one. In that case, the pursuit of Abu Shabak is legitimate (and Abbas should also be the subject of a Red Notice). But when a corrupt government is concerned, differentiating between personal and political corruption is unhelpful. It makes about as much sense as asking if a Mafia boss demands protection money to support his lifestyle or as part of his business ventures.

My conclusion is that Interpol’s highest priority must be to avoid involvement in politics . That means it should not publish Red Notices when the offense is genuine, but where the charge is being pressed for political reasons or by a regime which has fallen out with a former co-conspirator. But that, in turn, means that Interpol would have to accept that the Palestinian Authority is not Sweden. It would have to accept that states like Russia, or entities like the Palestinian Authority, are criminal conspiracies, and that it should not side with the criminals just because they happen to be in power.

In other words, it means that a significant part of Interpol’s membership should be expelled. But Interpol lacks both the power and the desire to do that. And that is why U.S. leadership to limit Interpol abuse is so important. If we do not act, there will be many more cases like Abu Shabak’s, and within a few years — if not sooner — we will be confronted by Palestinian Red Notices on Palestinian dissidents and opponents of Abbas and the Palestinian Authority who live not in Egypt, but in the United States.

And it is worse than that. If we do not push back when the Palestinian Authority abuses Interpol to pursue corrupt Palestinian officials for political reasons, we allow Interpol to become accustomed to treating Authority requests as though they are reasonable. When the Authority starts using Interpol to harass Americans who have the temerity to support Israel, we will regret not opposing its current abuses. For now, those abuses may target only corrupt Palestinians, but the precedent is dangerous nonetheless.

This piece originally appeared in Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/tedbromund/2018/12/14/the-palestinian-abuse-of-interpol-has-begun/#41b8fcae6e72