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Photo Credit: The Independent
By: Annie Kowalewski, Columnist
At the 85th session of the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) General Assembly in November 2016, Chinese Vice Minister of Public Security Meng Hongwei was elected President.[i] His appointment raises concern about whether he will abuse INTERPOL’s resources to crack down on Chinese political dissidents abroad, particularly as China has issued 100 INTERPOL red notices for persons wanted for arrest under “corruption” charges. Meng’s election sheds light on broader concerns about the safety and transparency of INTERPOL’s operations. If it were the case that Meng abuses his presidential power to find Chinese dissidents abroad, it would not be the first time an INTERPOL president has done so. Moreover, INTERPOL provides several opportunities for states to use INTERPOL resources to extend domestic policing efforts abroad, despite INTERPOL’s constitution that prohibits any kind of intervention in domestic politics.[ii] This worrying trend highlights the need for INTERPOL to make structural changes to avoid such situations and more effectively combat international crime, not political dissidents.
China and INTERPOL
Throughout his career, Meng Hongwei has served as the Deputy Director of the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force, Director of the Maritime Police Bureau, and a member of the Ministry of Public Security.[iii] Each of these bureaus fall under direct control of the Chinese State Council, one of the three main branches of power in Chinese politics, alongside the Communist Party (CCP) and the People’s Liberation Army. In practice, the State Council maintains membership within the top level of the CCP.[iv]
Under President Xi Jinping’s campaign to “purge” China of corruption, the CCP launched covert operations aimed at finding and capturing Chinese fugitives abroad. Those targeted by Operation Fox Hunt or Operation Skynet are ex-Chinese officials and wealthy businessmen and women who have been accused of financial crimes.[v] Given Meng’s background, there is no doubt that he has been a key player in implementing these operations at home. As INTERPOL President, Meng will have increased power to export these operations abroad, particularly through INTERPOL’s system of red notices.
INTERPOL’s red notice system allows member states to send notices abroad as domestic arrest notices, and provides police in other countries the jurisdiction to arrest suspects for extradition. A red notice is first requested by a member country’s domestic police force, then published by the General Secretariat, who alerts police all around the world. This system provides high international visibility to cases, flags these individuals for border control services, and allows countries to share critical information linked to investigations.[vi]
Often, the General Secretariat lacks the resources to effectively determine whether these red notices are motivated by politics, not crime, because those issuing the notice either lack rule of law or are not required to prosecute before submitting notices.[vii] Many of the suspects charged have not been formally tried because red notices can be issued against those sought by arrest warrants, not just court decisions. Yet when a red notice is emplaced, suspects can have their assets frozen, be detained at the border if they try to leave the country, or even be subject to extradition. Under current international law, persons who are restricted from freedom of movement without being formally charged through due process is a violation of their rights guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.[viii] Due to this absence of proper due diligence, the consequences of a red notice can thus lead to serious human rights abuses.[ix]
Moreover, recent investigations reveal that nearly half of published red notices were requested by states deemed most corrupt by Transparency International’s “Global Corruption Index.”[x] In the past, China, Iran, Pakistan, Tunisia, Bahrain, Sri Lanka, and Russia have all come under review for misusing INTERPOL’s red notice system. Since the INTERPOL president has a duty to “ensure that the activities of the Organization are in conformity with the decisions of the General Assembly” and has “direct and constant contact” with the General Secretariat, a president from a country abusing the red notice system is, at best, less likely to entertain challenges to these notices or, at worst, actively advocate the General Secretariat to expedite those notices.[xi] While Meng reaffirmed his commitment to “the cause of policing in the world,” China’s longstanding history of using red notices to arrest dissidents and refugees abroad thus brings into question his trajectory as president.[xii]
However, misuse of the red notice system should not drive INTERPOL to become exclusive by only allowing states with a certain standard of transparency and rule of law to access its services or hold its presidency. INTERPOL aims to “facilitate international police cooperation even when diplomatic relations do not exist between particular countries” under the spirit of the UDHR.[xiii] Given this purpose, INTERPOL must balance the need to provide police around the world access to tools and services to do their jobs effectively with the assurance that its services are not abused for political purposes. There are three ways that INTERPOL can strike this balance.
First and foremost, INTERPOL should become accountable to a transparent and impartial outside court or arbitration body. Currently, INTERPOL has its own appeals body with human rights lawyers, civil servants, and regional experts that help adjudicate whether red notices are legitimate.[xiv] Sometimes the appeals body looks into red notices they find suspect, and other times notices are appealed with tips from third party members. However, the appeals body has no investigative powers of its own and can only consider red notices based on the information submitted by the domestic police. Moreover, the body does not have a systematic method of combing through all red notices as they arrive, which allows countries to abuse the notice system. A third party court or arbitration arm would provide a clear process to challenge red notices and consider each notice on a case by case basis, as well as remedy any abuse of the system.[xv]
Secondly, INTERPOL should publish annual findings of which or how many red notices were submitted for political reasons and by which states. This measure would hold both INTERPOL and those issuing notices accountable to the general public, dissuading states from using the system to pursue political aims or issuing notices for reasons other than international legal violations.
Lastly, INTERPOL should better coordinate its notices and findings with other international bodies, such as the United Nations. There have been several instances where INTERPOL has issued red notices against people who have been declared political refugees by the UN, such as the case of Iranian political activist Rasoul Mazrae. Despite Mazrae’s status, Iranian officials in INTERPOL listed him as a fugitive and the Syrian government deported him to Iran, where he was jailed and tortured.[xvi] Such violations could be avoided if INTERPOL shared its databases or cross-checked its information with other organizations’ lists of refugees to determine the status of those flagged by red notices.
If INTERPOL is serious about “preventing and fighting crime through enhanced cooperation and innovation on police and security matters,” then it should improve the due diligence surrounding its red notice system. Doing so would be vital to preventing member states from abusing the red notice system or allowing presidents like Meng Hongwei to potentially prioritize national interests over INTERPOL’s mission.
[iv] “State Council” People. Accessed November 26 2016. http://en.people.cn/data/organs/statecouncil.shtml
[v] “Operation Skynet: China’s anti-corruption campaign goes international as Beijing reaches out to uncover officials fled abroad” The Independent. Accessed November 26 2016. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/operation-skynet-chinas-anti-corruption-campaign-goes-international-as-beijing-reaches-out-to-10142310.html
[vi] “Interpol’s Red Notices used by some to pursue political dissenters, opponents” The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Accessed November 26 2016. https://www.icij.org/project/interpols-red-flag/interpols-red-notices-used-some-pursue-political-dissenters-opponents
[vii] “China’s Meng Hongwei elected President of Interpol” Interpol. Accessed November 26 2016. https://www.interpol.int/News-and-media/News/2016/N2016-149
[viii] “Red Notices” Interpol. Accessed November 26 2016. https://www.interpol.int/INTERPOL-expertise/Notices/Red-Notices
[ix] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 12-14 http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx; Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 11-13 http://www.ohchr.org/EN/UDHR/Documents/UDHR_Translations/eng.pdf;
[x] “Interpol’s Red Notices used by some to pursue political dissenters, opponents” The Center for Public Integrity. Accessed November 26 2016. https://www.publicintegrity.org/2011/07/18/5179/interpols-red-notices-used-some-pursue-political-dissenters-opponents
[xi] “China’s Meng Hongwei elected President of Interpol” Interpol. Accessed November 26 2016. https://www.interpol.int/News-and-media/News/2016/N2016-149
[xiii] “Interpol’s Red Notices used by some to pursue political dissenters, opponents” The Center for Public Integrity. Accessed November 26 2016. https://www.publicintegrity.org/2011/07/18/5179/interpols-red-notices-used-some-pursue-political-dissenters-opponents
[xv] “Are some countries abusing Interpol?” CNN. Accessed November 26 2016. http://www.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/europe/07/18/interpol.red.notices/index.html?hpt=wo_c1
[xvi] “Interpol’s Red Notices used by some to pursue political dissenters, opponents” The Center for Public Integrity. Accessed November 26 2016. https://www.publicintegrity.org/2011/07/18/5179/interpols-red-notices-used-some-pursue-political-dissenters-opponents
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