Interpol, the international police organization founded in 1923 to facilitate cooperation among law enforcement agencies, has transformed into a formidable crime fighting force in recent years.
However, recent controversies over the misuse of its alert system have cast a shadow over its reputation as an indispensable tool for global law enforcement cooperation.
Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, speaking on Monday at a Justice Department event marking Interpol’s centennial, praised the organization’s role in fighting pressing global threats, from terrorism to cybercrime and human trafficking.
“Over the past 100 years, Interpol has evolved to meet each one of those threats, and in doing so has made the world a safer place,” Monaco told the attendees.
The ceremony in the Justice Department’s famed Great Hall featured presentations by a pipes and drums band and a local police department honor guard. Top Interpol officials as well as senior officials from the departments of Justice and Homeland Security, the two agencies that co-manage Interpol’s U.S. National Central Bureau, were in attendance.
As part of its mission, Interpol publishes so-called red notices, which are requests for police forces worldwide to locate and arrest a suspect pending extradition.
Only Interpol’s 195 member countries can request a red notice as long as it complies with Interpol’s rules.
Interpol says a task force of lawyers and police officers, established in 2017, conducts a thorough review of all red notice requests received.
In addition, Interpol has an independent body, known as Commission for the Control of Interpol’s Files, that removes disputed red notices and other alerts from its system. The commission is an additional oversight body whose members are mostly lawyers.
Despite the agency’s efforts to ensure compliance, however, countries such as Russia and China have in recent years been accused of misusing Interpol’s alert system for political purposes.
Interpol Secretary-General Jurgen Stock defended his agency’s “robust” review system during the Justice Department ceremony.
“When repeated non-compliance occurs, preventive and corrective measures are applied to those member countries to protect the integrity of our channels,” Stock said.
In 2021, Interpol published nearly 24,000 red notices and wanted persons alerts and rejected nearly 1,300 for non-compliance.
Monaco lauded Interpol’s increased scrutiny of alert requests in order “to ensure that Interpol isn’t misused in furtherance of transnational repression” by autocratic regimes.
But critics say authoritarian regimes continue to abuse the system.
In 2021, Uyghur activist Idris Hasan was arrested in Morocco based on a red notice issued by Interpol at China’s request.
Though Interpol classified the red notice as “noncompliant” after Hasan’s arrest and release, the case highlights “the inherent dangers of an international policing organization cooperating with non-rule of law countries prone to abuse such instruments for persecution that run counter to Interpol’s constitution,” human rights non-profit Safeguard Defenders wrote in a report.
Other critics have leveled similar criticism at China.
“In recent years, China has increasingly used the Interpol red notice system to stifle dissent,” Human Rights Watch wrote in a 2022 report.
Critics say Russia is another chronic abuser of Interpol.
In 2018, Bill Browder, an American human rights activist and critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was arrested in Spain on an Interpol red notice requested by Russia. The notice was later rescinded, and Bowder was released.
Ted Bromund, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said Interpol operates on the presumption that its member states act in good faith.
“As a result, there continues to be a lot of Interpol abuse through notices, through diffusions and through other mechanisms,” Bromund said in an interview. Diffusions are alerts sent by a member country to other member countries.
Bromund said that Interpol’s own data suggests that its review task force is failing to prevent questionable red notices filed by countries such as China and Russia.
The number of notices deleted by the Commission for the Control of Interpol Files remains “historically high,” he noted.
“If the Notices and Diffusions Task Force were actually preventing all abuse, the commission … should not have to keep on deleting so many red notices,” he said.
Both China and Russia have denied abusing Interpol.
Despite the criticisms, Interpol retains an essential role in global law enforcement cooperation. Its role in fighting crime has grown in recent years, as criminals increasingly operate across borders and online.
Interpol says police departments worldwide query its databases more than 20 million times a day, or roughly 250 searches per second.