On July 19, Uyghur activist Yidiresi Aishan was detained in Morocco at the request of the Chinese government. As Aishan sits in Tiflet Detention Centre, he knows that if he is sent back to his homeland in Xinjiang, he almost certainly will be detained for “re-education” in the Chinese Communist Party’s vast network of concentration camps or sent to prison.
Aishan was arrested based on a Red Notice issued by Interpol, an organization that brings together police forces from 194 countries. A Red Notice is an electronic alert published by Interpol at the request of a member state and circulated among law enforcement worldwide. Improvements in technology have led to a surge in Red Notices in recent years.
In 1998, Interpol published only 737 Red Notices, but in 2019 it published 13,377 such notices. Although the constitution of Interpol forbids countries from using it to pursue political opponents, autocrats nevertheless have taken advantage and used Interpol to clamp down on dissent.
China has been active in using Interpol against its opponents — in particular, Uyghurs. The Chinese government issued a Red Notice against the head of the Uyghur World Congress Dolkun Issa in 1999, leading to his detention in South Korea, India, Turkey and Italy. This appears to be part of a broader campaign to target China’s Muslim minorities globally. A recent report by the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs and the Uyghur Human Rights Project documented 1,546 cases of Uyghurs being detained or deported from 28 countries since 1997. This leaves Uyghurs especially vulnerable to being targeted abroad.
But it is not just China that is abusing Interpol. Authoritarian regimes from Russia to Iran and Venezuela have used Interpol to pursue opponents abroad. Following the alleged coup attempt by the Gülen Movement in Turkey in 2016, the Turkish government attempted to upload over 60,000 requests for arrests into Interpol’s databases. Turkey will host the organization’s next General Assembly in the fall.
Meanwhile, despite accounting for just 0.12 percent of the world’s population, Tajikistan, an autocratic republic in post-Soviet Central Asia, had 2,528 Red Notices in circulation via Interpol by 2017 — 2.3 percent of the total in circulation at the time — including one against Muhiddin Kabiri, leader of the country’s main opposition party.
Autocrats also have sought to buy influence in the organization. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), for example, has donated $54 million through a charity called the Interpol Foundation for a Safer World, equaling the statutory contributions of all of the other 194 members combined. In a sign of its growing influence, the UAE hosted the 2018 General Assembly and was slated to host the 2020 version before the COVID-19 pandemic caused its postponement.
Autocrats also have used Interpol to reach into the United States. Despite the Department of Justice not recognizing Red Notices as sufficient grounds to arrest someone, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has detained a number of individuals wanted by Russia, Kazakhstan and other authoritarian states based on Red Notices from their governments. Although all individuals were later released, some spent months in immigration detention centers.
Why is Interpol so vulnerable to abuse? Part of the problem is that it operates on the basis of equality between member states. In other words, it views an arrest request issued by China as equal to that of the United States. There is also a matter of capacity. As Red Notices have surged, Interpol’s small staff simply cannot give all of them the scrutiny they require. While progress has been made to beef up checks and allow those with refugee status to have their Red Notices deleted, Interpol remains opaque, secretive and lacks accountability.
In order to push back against autocratic abuse, the international community must work to form a democratic caucus within Interpol. Democracies make up 14 of the 15 top statutory funders of the body. These democracies could caucus together on key general assembly votes, support common candidates for key positions and adopt policies to insulate Interpol against abuse, including banning abusive states from accessing Interpol’s database, as the organization’s own rules allow.
Democracies can also fight back using their own institutions, as the United States is trying to do. Legislation was introduced to both houses of Congress in May. The Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act is designed to ensure Interpol adheres to its constitution, imposes penalties on countries for egregious violations of Interpol, and that U.S. government agencies do not arrest people solely based on Red Notices.
If the international community does not act, autocrats will continue to use Interpol as a tool to consolidate their power and stifle dissent around the world, including for those who have sought safe haven in democracies.
Edward Lemon, Ph.D., is a research assistant professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University, Washington, D.C. teaching site.
Bradley Jardine is a political analyst and journalist with the Wilson Center who has been working to document China’s growing economic and political presence in former Soviet Union countries.