The thorny question of #Interpol’s political neutrality

| January 14, 2020

In April of this year, the eight people making up the Commission for the Control of Interpol’s Files (CCF) pondered a familiar problem. It was a new year, but the task laid before the CCF was one they were acutely familiar with. They had been asked to consider a diffusion request from the National Central Bureau of the Russian Federation (NCB)— the seventh request relating to Bill Browder, the American-born financier-turned-activist who made his millions in the turbulent markets of 1990’s Russia.

The request—which, as expected, Interpol denied—is just the latest volley in the long-running battle between the American-born Browder and the Russian state. Moscow, incensed by Browder’s role in shining an international spotlight on the cronyism of Russia’s elite, has accused Browder of embezzlement as he lobbies international governments for improved legislation against corrupt and autocratic regimes. Browder, an instrumental figure in the passage of Magnitsky legislation around the world, has for his part decried the use of Interpol as an alleged tool of political vengeance by the Russian state.

The Browder case, however, is only one of a litany of political controversies that Interpol has found itself embroiled in in recent years. High-profile instances of the politicised misuse of the agency’s Red Notices and Diffusion Requests have called into question the organisation’s integrity and dented its international reputation.

But how does Interpol, in attempting to protect its notice system from abuse, ensure that the CCF itself is appropriately unbiased?

Interpol’s attempts to retain political neutrality have traditionally been centred around Article 3 of its constitution. The Article states that “it is strictly forbidden for the organisation to undertake any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character”. In 2013, Interpol drew a further distinction between cases of people pursued by domestic security services for purely political offences, and those wanted in cases which have a political dimension, but in which there is nonetheless a genuine criminal offence.

Interpol is working hard to tighten enforcement of Article 3. In 2017, it was reported that the organisation was scrutinising over 40,000 notices to check for political abuse. Indeed, the CCF has rejected a number of politically motivated requests in recent years . Just last month, for example, Interpol rejected a politically-motivated request by the Pakistani government to issue a Red Notice against former finance minister Ishaq Dar. In July, Finnish Interpol refused to deport a Turkish asylum seeker to his homeland, claiming he would be mistreated on his return.

Some claim that Interpol has gone too far, and that inherent biases against the impartiality of the judicial systems in certain countries may allow international criminals to slip through Interpol’s fingers. An overarching climate of suspicion against officials in Russia and the CIS helps illustrate this tendency.

Ukrainian politician Oleksandr Onyshchenko, for example, fled Ukraine in 2016 after he was accused of embezzling over US$64m from state-owned companies. While a growing mountain of evidence has incriminated Onyshchenko—Ukrainian investigators found the former MP had masterminded a scheme which cost the government some US $125 million, and the Verkhovna Rada both stripped Onyshchenko of his parliamentary immunity and called for his detention—Western officials have hesitated to take action. On two separate occasions, Spanish and German courts have refused Kyiv’s diffusion requests, while Interpol rejected Ukrainian requests to publish a Red Notice for Onyshchenko’s detention. The former Ukrainian parliamentarian was finally arrested earlier this month in Germany, thanks to a separate request from Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau.

Another example is the case of Vladimir and Sergei Makhlai, the father and son duo at the centre of a high-profile fraud case involving a Russian ammonia plant called TogliattiAzot. The pair, along with the plant’s CEO, Yevgeny Korolyov, fled the country in 2005. Vladimir spent almost half a million dollars on PR firm New Century Media to help him gain citizenship in the UK – a collaboration that ultimately ended in legal acrimony, with Vladimir failing to pay his bills to New Century. Nonetheless, in 2009, a Westminster court threw out the diffusion request for Korolyov and the Makhlais, claiming political motivations. As in the Oleksander Onyshchenko case, Interpol and national courts seemed—perhaps swayed by their own preconceptions associated with the Russian state’s use of Interpol—to ignore the weight of the evidence justifying the request.

But where does this leave Interpol? The agency’s mission is to act as a neutral body that helps countries cooperate in catching the world’s most prolific criminals. By favouring one country or legal system over another, or render requests from certain countries invalid, can it still fulfil this task?

Ultimately, the CCF’s prerogative must be to prevent unscrupulous forces from taking advantage of Interpol’s political neutrality, while also ensuring that Interpol’s measures to control for the misuse of Red Notices and diffusion requests do not jeopardise the genuine needs of the international law enforcement community.  If political arguments are allowed to unduly influence Interpol’s decisions so as to help criminals escape justice, Interpol will ultimately render itself futile.

 

 

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