Interpol May Need to Be Investigated

(The Bloomberg View) -- The global law-enforcement agency Interpol has in recent years become almost a mockery of itself, serving as a tool for the most repressive governments on earth to persecute dissidents, human-rights activists and journalists. Now things may get worse: On Wednesday, member states are likely to elect a new president from one of the worst malefactors, Russia.

The problem is that Russia — along with other authoritarian nations, including China, Iran, Venezuela and Turkey — abuses the system by issuing “red notices” to other member states requesting them to arrest people on spurious grounds and extradite them to their home nations.   

Interpol doesn’t have the power make arrests itself. In theory, it’s supposed to review red-notice requests and weed out those that are purely political or lack sufficient evidence of wrongdoing. But it hasn’t worked out that way: Between 2006 and 2016, the number of red notices has quadrupled. And if Interpol rejects a red-flag request, countries can still issue unilateral “diffusions,” which are similar to red notices but don’t need to be reviewed by the organization before being sent out.

The most infamous case involves Moscow’s diffusions targeting the British businessman William Browder, who employed Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who was arrested on what are widely considered to be bogus charges and died in prison in 2009. The primary U.S. law for sanctioning foreigners involved in human-rights violations is called the Magnitsky Act in his memory. Browder was arrested in Spain this May but subsequently released.

The previous Interpol president was a Chinese official, Meng Hongwei, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances when he returned to Beijing earlier this year. Having a president from China was unfortunate, but the election of Russia’s Alexander Prokopchuk, considered the strong favorite, would be worse. A group of U.S. senators stated that “Russia routinely abuses Interpol for the purpose of settling scores and harassing political opponents, dissidents and journalists. Alexander Prokopchuk has been personally involved in this intimidation strategy which ultimately seeks to weaken democratic institutions and embolden Putin’s authoritarian regime.” The U.S. State Department is attempting to raise last-minute support for other candidates.

While Interpol’s president isn’t in charge of the organization’s day-to-day activities, Prokopchuck would be the main force in setting its future direction. Should he rise to that role, it would put the U.S. and its democratic allies, which provide most of Interpol’s annual budget, in a conundrum.

Their best option would be to use their financial leverage to force large-scale reforms, starting with an independent investigation of the red-flag system. Should that fail, they may have no choice but to leave Interpol and form a rival organization dedicated to detaining actual criminals and sending them to their home countries to face charges.

For nearly a century, Interpol played a critical role in global law enforcement. But if it continues to become a vehicle for repression, there is no reason for democratic nations to keep it alive.  

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg View editorial board.

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