Last week, a Turkish newspaper alleged that Interpol had “removed Turkey from its database” after the Turkish government sought to report 60,000 people to Interpol on the grounds that they were members of the so-called Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETO), which the Turkish government alleges was behind the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Supposedly, Interpol said that the Turkey request raised an “issue of trust” and suspended its access in July 2016. A day later, Interpol denied this report.
Media reporting on Interpol is often inaccurate, in large part because the journalists doing the reporting don’t understand Interpol. But, while there is a lot in this story that remains unclear, something is obviously going on, and with due regard for the unknown, it’s worthwhile parsing these events – both for what they tell us about Turkey, and for what they say about Interpol.
Interpol supports each and every one of its 190 members as part of security cooperation benefits. No access block has been implemented in Interpol’s databases, including for those who have international warrants in Turkey.
Though commonly described as an international police agency, Interpol is actually an organization of law enforcement organizations (which communicate to Interpol through their respective National Central Bureaus). Because it is (rightly) based on respect for the sovereignty of its members, it does not make arrests. Technically, it is not even accurate to speak of “Interpol’s databases” because, while Interpol controls its data systems, the data in it are owned by its member nations. Interpol is obliged by its own Constitution to follow a number of rules, including avoiding any involvement in political affairs. It must stick to recognized crimes like murder, robbery, and arson.
Interpol is extremely reluctant to suspend any of its member nations from accessing its systems: it operates under the assumption that all of its members are responsible and act in good faith. Interpol also argues banning them from using Interpol would do more harm than good. In 2013, then-Secretary General of Interpol Ron Noble said that the idea that a nation should not be allowed to use Interpol’s channels if it violated the rules was “one of the most dangerous proposals I have heard.”
In fact, this “proposal” is already part of Interpol’s rules: Article 131(1)(c) of its Rules on the Processing of Data allows Interpol’s General Secretariat to take actions including “suspension of the access rights granted to users of the National Central Bureau.” Any long-term suspension requires approval of Interpol’s Executive Committee (Article 131(3)), but Interpol’s General Secretariat clearly has the authority to suspend a nation’s access to Interpol systems for a short period. It just chooses not to do so.
So it’s no surprise that Interpol has not implemented an “access block” on Turkey. But Interpol did go on to say that some notifications (not necessarily only from Turkey) had not been entered into Interpol’s systems due to “non-occurrence.” This means that the requests did not comply with Interpol’s rules on avoiding involvement in political activities, that they lacked proper documentation, such as a court order or an arrest warrant, or both. It seems at least possible that both problems arose in this case – that the 60,000 individuals have been accused of political crimes, and that they been named as a result of a police and intelligence investigation, not through a court order.
In short, while Interpol has not blocked Turkey’s access to Interpol’s systems – including access to records of individuals already in the system – it appears to have rejected a number of Turkish requests to add individuals to the system. If we accept the press reports that Turkey sought to add 60,000 names to Interpol-maintained databases, what does that tell us?
Simply put, 60,000 names is a lot. At the end of 2015 – the most recent data available – the so-called “Nominal” Interpol database contained just over 163,000 records. If Turkey sought to add 60,000 names to this database, it was trying to increase the size of the database by well over a third.. It has taken Interpol almost 70 years to accumulate 163,000 records. For one country to seek to add 60,000 records in a single year is unprecedented.
On the other hand, some of the reporting implies that Turkey had sought what are known as Interpol Red Notices on those 60,000 individuals. Red Notices are commonly described as international arrest warrants, though they are actually non-binding requests to other Interpol member nations to locate and arrest the named individual, coupled with a pledge from the nation that requested the Red Notice to seek the extradition of that individual. If Turkey did seek Red Notices, that would be even more unprecedented, as Interpol had (as of the end of 2015) only 67,491 valid notices in circulation. It would be remarkable to add another 60,000 notices in a matter of months, from one nation.
No matter what Turkey tried to do, seeking to involve 60,000 individuals in Interpol’s systems at once – if that figure is accurate – is unprecedented. To my mind, it would constitute prime facie evidence that Turkey tried to abuse Interpol’s systems. But what do Interpol’s rules say about this?
We know less than I would like to about how Interpol interprets its rule against involvement in political activity. But Interpol did recently publish a guide (Interpol calls it a “Repository of Practice”) to applying this rule. It explicitly asks the question of whether “data concerning offences committed in the context of an unconstitutional seizure of power” can be processed. It answers that, for several well-founded reasons, Interpol’s practice “has generally been to forbid the use of the Organization’s channels for the circulation of requests for police cooperation related to acts committed in the context of an unconstitutional seizure of power.”
So even if one accepts that FETO actually exists, that all the 60,000 individuals are actually members of FETO, that FETO was responsible for the 2016 coup attempt, and that all members of FETO share in this responsibility, Turkey’s purported effort to use Interpol’s systems in relation to those 60,000 individuals is still almost certainly a violation (and a massive violation at that) of Interpol’s rules – rules that are incumbent on Turkey to respect as part of its Interpol membership.
This is not the first time that Turkish opponents of the Erdogan regime have alleged that it is abusing mechanisms for international cooperation to harass dissidents. The regime purportedly cancels passports of critical journalists, businessmen, and NGO representatives so they cannot leave Turkey, or to strand them abroad if they have left the country. This ingenious form of harassment also makes use of Interpol, as Interpol administers the lost and stolen travel documents database. Interpol has recently become more aware of the ways that autocratic regimes can use its Nominal Database and Red Notices to harass political opponents, but it has not evinced any public interest in abuse conducted through its travel documents database. It is time it did.
It is also time for Interpol to take seriously Article 131 of its Rules, and to exercise its authority to suspend nations that persistently and willfully abuse its mechanisms from accessing Interpol’s systems. If Turkey did indeed seek Interpol’s involvement against 60,000 individuals accused of political crimes, that sanction should be applied. If it is not, it is hard to believe that any nation will take the threat of losing its access seriously.
Americans should bear in mind that this is not just an abstract issue. The Erdogan-aligned press concluded its attack on Interpol’s purported suspension of Turkey by noting: “Many members of the [FETO] organization, such as members of the judiciary, soldiers in NATO, journalists, police officers and bureaucrats . . . maintain their lives in a number of countries, particularly in Europe and the USA.” This is undoubtedly, first of all, a reference to the U.S.-based preacher Fethullah Gülen, a former regime supporter and now bitterly hated by it as the purported leader of FETO.
But note the reference to “soldiers in NATO.” This is a hint that the Turkish regime may be seeking to use Interpol to target members of the U.S. armed forces who have been deployed to Turkey (and in particular, most likely, to the Incirlik Air Base). Abuse of Interpol is serious enough in itself. If this abuse seeks to harass American citizens—especially those who served or are serving in uniform--then both the Trump Administration and Congress will have to take actions to shield its citizens and ensure that Interpol lives up to its obligation not to facilitate political harassment.
This piece originally appeared on Forbes.com