Inquiry on Autocracies and UK Foreign Policy

Testimony Global Politics

Inquiry on Autocracies and UK Foreign Policy

September 19, 2019 12 min read
Theodore R. Bromund
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.
Political abuse of Interpol—primarily but not exclusively by autocracies—is a growing problem. The effects of this abuse vary from state to state, but it is severe and enduring. Interpol’s rules are well-designed to prevent abuse. Unfortunately, not all of Interpol’s member states respect those rules. The problem is that Interpol believes all of its member states are equal. As a result, it begins by assuming that all of their requests have equal validity. This assumption is false. The autocracies stand on an equal footing with the democracies in Interpol’s supreme body, its General Assembly. The democracies, with some exceptions, control Interpol financially. The U.K. should reform its National Central Bureau to develop the political sensibilities to detect and combat the political abuse that the autocratic states are perpetrating.
Dr. Ted R. Bromund
Senior Research Fellow
The Heritage Foundation
 
Written Evidence Submitted to the
House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee
 
July 23, 2019

Executive Summary

  • Political abuse of Interpol—primarily but not exclusively by autocracies—is a growing problem. The effects of this abuse vary from state to state, but it is severe and enduring.

  • Interpol’s rules are well-designed to prevent abuse. Unfortunately, not all of Interpol’s member states respect those rules.

  • The problem is that Interpol believes all of its member states are equal. As a result, it begins by assuming that all of their requests have equal validity. This assumption is false.

  • The autocracies stand on an equal footing with the democracies in Interpol’s supreme body, its General Assembly. The democracies, with some exceptions, control Interpol financially.

  • The U.K. should reform its National Central Bureau to develop the political sensibilities to detect and combat the political abuse that the autocratic states are perpetrating.

    Introduction

  1. I am a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a U.S. think tank based in Washington, DC. I am submitting this evidence in my personal capacity as an expert on Interpol and its abuse by autocratic nations, a subject on which I have served as an expert witness in U.S. courts and written extensively as a public policy professional.

    The Problem of Interpol Abuse

  2. Interpol is supposed to promote apolitical, international cooperation against ordinary crime. It is increasingly being abused by autocratic states, which use Interpol for political purposes that are forbidden by its Constitution. The effects of this abuse vary from state to state and case to case, but include imprisonment of the victim, extradition to the abusing state, loss of access to the financial system, and the reputational cost of wrongly being branded an internationally wanted criminal.

  3. It is not possible from public sources to know how precisely much Interpol abuse is perpetrated. But my research, based on the inadequate information published by Interpol, has found that Interpol abuse is rising approximately twice as fast as overall use of the Interpol system. In 2007, Interpol published 3,131 Red Notices, which are often—if incorrectly—described as international arrest warrants. In 2017, 10 years later, it published 13,048 Red Notices, an increase of just over fourfold. By contrast, the Commission for the Control of Interpol’s Files (CCF), Interpol’s appellate body, received 201 new requests in 2010 and 1,217 in 2017, a sixfold increase in only seven years.

  4. The problem of Interpol abuse has appeared and grown for two reasons. First, Interpol is based on the sovereign equality of its member states. Since almost all widely recognized states are members of Interpol, this means that Interpol regards almost all the judicial and police systems in the world as being equally trustworthy and equally respectful of the distinction between ordinary crimes and political crimes. But since all judicial and police systems are not in fact equally trustworthy or equally respectful of this distinction, Interpol by design extends the same credence to domestically abusive autocratic systems as it does to law-abiding and democratic ones. Thus, Interpol was always vulnerable to being abused for purposes contrary to its Constitution.

  5. Second, Interpol was for decades protected from abuse, in practice, by the inefficiency of its operations. But in 2003, Interpol inaugurated its I-24/7 system, which is in essence an e-mail system that is fronted by a Web-based interface known as I-Link, which was launched in 2009. Together, these systems made it much easier for member nations to access the Interpol system, and, in particular, to request that Interpol publish a Red Notice. That, in turn, led to both an explosive growth in the number of Red Notices published—from 737 in 1998 to 13,048 in 2017—and to the more than proportionate rise in abuse. Essentially, Interpol prioritized increasing its efficiency—a laudable goal—without realizing that a more efficient electronic system would also be much easier to abuse. Nor did it realize that this abuse would be more damaging when it worked through interconnected, and often automated, electronic border control and banking systems.

    Which States Abuse Interpol and How They Do It

  6. We do not know which state first began to abuse Interpol. Nor can we say for certain which states now successfully perpetrate the most abuse, or the most damaging abuse. But as many of the earliest known cases of abuse—such as Ahmed Zakaev in 2002 or Ilya Katsnelson in 2008—center on Russia, it is likely that other states learned from Russia. But it is also likely that the potential for abusing the Interpol system was so obvious that learning by example was not always necessary.

  7. Today, a list of the most abusive member states of Interpol would have to begin with Turkey, which since the failed coup of 2016 has attempted—not always successfully—a volume of abuse that is genuinely unprecedented. Other exceptionally abusive member states include Russia, China, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela. But at this point, it is harder to list nations that have not been credibly accused of Interpol abuse. While not all the abusive states are autocracies, it is certainly true that autocracies dominate any serious list of the most abusive member states of Interpol.

  8. One of the most troubling aspects of the autocratic abuse of Interpol is that the autocracies are not attempting to change Interpol’s rules. Instead, they are taking advantage of the failure—and to some extent, the inability—of the democracies to enforce the rules that prohibit abuse.

  9. As I explained above, Interpol is based on the sovereign equality of its member states. It therefore operates on the assumption that all requests for Red Notices, and other publications, must initially be presumed to have equal validity. As then-Interpol Senior Counsel Yaron Gottlieb put it in 2011: “We assume that what we receive here is accurate and relevant, that an arrest warrant is issued by a judge that is not corrupt, and, of course, that the case is not political.”

  10. This assumption would make sense if all of Interpol’s member states met a minimum standard of respect for the rule of law, but in fact, too few member states of most international organizations, including too few members of Interpol, meet this minimum standard. The underlying problem is thus that, while Interpol is an organization committed to promoting the rule of law, too many of its members are autocracies that are not fully committed (or not committed at all) to the rule of law.

  11. Moreover, because Interpol is not an investigative body—for any investigations it might seek to conduct would infringe on the sovereignty of its member states—it does not look into the domestic judicial or legal systems of its member states, or seek to uncover the details of any case that is presented to it. Interpol can only rely on publicly available information, or information that it receives from other sources, such as other member nations. It is extremely unlikely that any Interpol member nation (even the democracies) would want to give it the power to conduct its own investigations inside member states. Interpol’s lack of investigative power is therefore unavoidable, but when combined with the assumption on which Interpol is based, it means that Interpol is systematically likely to credit abusive requests from its autocratic member states.

  12. Most of the attention directed at the problem of Interpol abuse has focused on Interpol’s Red Notice system. But as Chris Bryant MP stated in oral evidence on June 5, 2019, “[T]here is a red notice and a diffusion notice.” Mr. Bryant was right to call attention to Interpol’s diffusion system, because diffusions—which are nothing more than structured e-mails—can request provisional arrests just as Red Notices do. The difference is that Interpol does not see diffusions until after they are transmitted, so the only safeguards on the diffusion system are ex post facto. As a result, there are indications that, as the autocratic abuse of Red Notices has drawn increasing public attention, this abuse is starting to shift into the diffusion system.

  13. Finally, since Interpol is controlled by its one nation, one vote General Assembly, it is unlikely that the minority of democratic member states of Interpol can lead a successful campaign to expel its autocratic members or change Interpol’s rules to require it to apply higher standards of proof to requests from autocracies. To put it bluntly, the fox is already inside the henhouse, and it will be extremely difficult for the democracies to vote it out.

    The Strengths of the Autocracies and the Democracies Compared

  14. The autocracies and the democracies have different sources of strength inside Interpol.

  15. By and large, Interpol’s rules are well-designed. Interpol’s 1956 Constitution explicitly bans it from any involvement in political, racial, religious, or military affairs, and was designed to prevent autocratic manipulation. Its Rules on the Processing of Data that play a major role in implementing the Constitution have been carefully drafted. The rules of Interpol are basically on the side of the democracies. If the democracies nonetheless cannot make Interpol work as it was designed to work, this reflects poorly on them and bodes ill for the future of all international organizations.

  16. The strength of the autocracies rests fundamentally on the assumption that all members of Interpol are created equal. But it also rests partly in their numbers. Any effort to define the status of a state is subject to debate, but in early 2019, I found that only 74 of Interpol’s 194 member states are democracies, 71 are non-democracies, and the remaining 49 are weak democracies. In short, the weak democracies hold the balance of power in Interpol’s General Assembly.

  17. We know little about voting records in the General Assembly, as voting there is confidential (an indefensible practice). But the evidence proves that the democracies do not command the Assembly. In 2017, the Assembly voted to admit the Palestinian Authority, in spite of the Authority’s repeated statements that it planned to abuse its membership. The vote was 75 in favor of the Authority, 34 abstentions, and 24 against. A year later, the Assembly voted for Kim Jong Yang of South Korea as its new president, against Russia’s Alexander Prokopchuk, a known leader of Russia’s abuse of Interpol, by 101 to 61. It is therefore at best unclear how the Assembly would decide if the democratic states pressed for it to vote on a contentious issue.

  18. The autocracies may stand on a roughly equal plane with the democracies in the General Assembly, but they do not control it financially. Of the top 25 contributors to Interpol, 20 are fully democratic, and they paid 78.1 percent of Interpol’s statutory contributions. The only non-democracies in the top 30 contributors are China (2.03 million euros), Russia (958,000 euros), Turkey (503,000 euros), and Saudi Arabia (437,000 euros). All four of these nations contributed only 785,000 euros more in 2017 than the United Kingdom did by itself.

  19. Interpol also receives voluntary contributions. These funds derive primarily from the Interpol Foundation for a Safer World. The Foundation is a front for the United Arab Emirates, a known abuser of Interpol, which in 2017 gave 3 million euros to Interpol.

  20. Finally, Interpol receives financial support through its “Trust Fund and Special Account,” which includes contributions received from contracts from private partners. Interpol has shown consistently poor judgment when selecting these private partners. For example, it has worked with FIFA, the corrupt football organization, purportedly to stop corruption in football.

  21. In short, power inside Interpol is finely balanced. The democracies have their dominance of Interpol’s budget on their side, and Interpol’s rules are fundamentally sound. But Interpol accords the autocracies an assumption of equality that they do not merit, and the autocracies likely have the numbers to block any changes in the General Assembly that would require Interpol to treat requests from autocracies with the skepticism they deserve.

    How the U.K. Should Respond

  22. Like all Interpol member states, the U.K. interacts with Interpol through its National Central Bureau (NCB), which is under the control of the Home Office. Like most democracies, the U.K. views its dealings with Interpol as a matter of apolitical law enforcement. This is laudable in theory, but in practice, when autocratic states are abusing Interpol for political purposes, it means the U.K.—like most democracies—risks systematically ignoring the political abuse that is actually occurring.

  23. Thus, the fundamental change that the U.K., like other democracies, should make is to inject awareness of international political realities into its NCB. This is not a call for politicizing Interpol. It is a call for developing the political sensibilities to detect and combat the political abuse that the autocratic states are perpetrating. To achieve this end, the U.K. NCB should be required to develop a permanent liaison with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), and a senior position should be created inside the U.K. NCB for an FCO official of ambassadorial rank who would be charged with developing strategies for detecting and preventing autocratic abuse of Interpol.

  24. These strategies should include the following. First, the U.K. NCB—like most democratic NCBs—should view its job as including protecting U.K. citizens, and others legally in the U.K., from Interpol abuse. Second, the U.K. NCB should, preferably in coordination with other democratic NCBs, be more active in protesting abusive requests from autocracies to Interpol. Third, the U.K. NCB should be required to certify that any Red Notice—or other Interpol publication—used in U.K. legal proceedings by Her Majesty’s Government is not abusive.

  25. All of these recommendations are fully in line with Interpol’s rules. Interpol itself states that NCBs are part of the Interpol system’s defense against abuse. Since all member states of Interpol are fully sovereign, the U.K. is under no obligation whatsoever to credit an Interpol Red Notice, and is free to ensure, to its own satisfaction, that Interpol publications are fit to be used in U.K. courts.

  26. The U.K. should also seek to leverage the dominant financial position of the democracies in Interpol by taking the lead in creating a democratic funders’ caucus within Interpol. This caucus would pick and lobby for a slate of democratic candidates for Interpol’s presidency, its Executive Committee, and the CCF, and would press for greater transparency in Interpol’s publications.

  27. The democratic funders’ caucus should also seek to bring transparency to Interpol’s finances. The caucus should press for (1) full and public transparency on all sources of past and present Interpol income; (2) Interpol’s exclusive future reliance on statutory contributions from its member nations; (3) an immediate end to all contractual relations with private parties that have a fundraising element; (4) an immediate end to any relationship with the Interpol Foundation for a Safer World; (5) a reduction in peripheral activities to allow Interpol to live within its means; and (6) an increase in statutory contributions, should this prove necessary.

  28. Under the leadership of Secretary General Jürgen Stock, Interpol has made significant and constructive reforms to the CCF’s rules and structure. But data from the CCF concerning its operations and decisions, while improving, are still insufficient.

  29. The democratic funders’ caucus should propose a General Assembly resolution commending the CCF for the improvements it has made, while requiring it to publish decision excerpts—in a timely, reliable, and regular manner—so as to create case law on which attorneys and other experts can rely. It also should require publication of annual reports containing full and standardized information on the requests received, the actions taken, and the nations involved.

  30. Interpol’s member states are responsible for not making politicized requests. Interpol cannot prevent autocratic states from making requests for politicized Red Notices—it can only refuse to publish these notices. Interpol’s rules make it clear that, if a state persistently makes requests that seek to break those rules, its access to Interpol’s systems can be suspended for three months by the General Secretariat, without reference to the General Assembly. Unless states face consequences for abusing the privileges of belonging to Interpol, it will ultimately be impossible to establish any deterrent power that will protect Interpol from abuse.

  31. The democratic funders’ caucus should propose a General Assembly resolution affirming that Interpol has the power, as specified by Article 131 of its Rules on the Processing of Data, and the responsibility to suspend abusive states. The resolution should further direct Interpol’s General Secretariat to carry out a study on which states have submitted the most requests—and the highest proportion of requests—rejected as abusive or later determined to be abusive. That study should be made available to the press at the 2020 General Assembly meeting.

  32. The U.K. and other democracies should propose a reform to the diffusion system. Diffusions should be transmitted only in cases of emergencies. Diffusions should expire in 24 hours, or have to undergo the same review as—and then be converted into—Red Notices.

  33. Finally, the U.K. should work with a carefully selected group of democracies to create a “white list” of individual victims of Interpol abuse. Admission to the group of democracies should be by unanimous agreement of the existing members, with only the most trustworthy states allowed to join. The members of this group would agree to offer mutual diplomatic support to victims of abuse, and would act together to protect their freedom of movement and commerce.

    Conclusion

  34. Interpol serves a good purpose, and it has good rules. Its problem, simply stated, is that not all of its member states are as good as its rules. The point of these proposed reforms, at the national and the international level alike, is not to challenge Interpol’s purpose or its rules. It is to ensure that Interpol upholds those rules. If it does not, it is not just Interpol’s purpose or the victims of autocratic abuse that will suffer. Ultimately, the last casualty of Interpol abuse will be Interpol itself.

Authors

Theodore R. Bromund
Theodore Bromund

Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations