The Interpol international alert system has been increasingly abused by repressive regimes who have worked out that it is the perfect means to attack their opponents overseas, Ben Keith and Rhys Davies write.
At the UK House of Lords last week, the Uyghur researcher Nyrola Elima said, “Uyghurs in the diaspora all have two common experiences. One is they had or still have family in the internment camps or prisons."
"The second is," Elima emphasised, "they have all been facing transnational repression from the Chinese Government.”
China’s use and misuse of the Interpol Red Notice system is dangerously close to damaging Interpol beyond repair.
Red Notices, the favourite tool of dictators worldwide
Despite what many may believe, Interpol is not an international police force.
It does not have agents stationed around the world, ready to pounce on international criminal masterminds at a moment’s notice.
In reality, it is an information-sharing organisation which allows police forces across the world to issue requests for suspects to be detained via its Red Notice system.
Whilst Interpol itself doesn’t have boots on the ground, the information that it shares allows police in one country to use the resources of a police force in another country to apprehend individuals suspected of serious criminality.
Sometimes, the system works well, with countless serious criminals detained over the years, before being extradited back to countries where they have committed serious offences.
However, the Interpol Red Notice system has been increasingly abused in recent years by repressive regimes, such as China and Russia, who have worked out that it is the perfect means to attack their opponents overseas.
By issuing Red Notices via the Interpol system, some of the world’s dictators and worst human rights abusers have been able to weaponise police forces in countries where they would normally have no influence.
Often, those Red Notices are used to harass opponents and make their life as difficult as possible.
Russia taught China how to abuse the system
Bill Browder, the human rights activist and guiding force behind the international Magnitsky campaign, was subjected to multiple Red Notice requests at Russia's Vladimir Putin’s behest, meaning that every time he crossed a border, he was at risk of being questioned at best — or arrested at worst.
Browder was even briefly detained in Spain on an international warrant in 2018, causing an uproar. Yet, Interpol has repeatedly denied the existence of a single Red Notice against him, which led to more questions than answers since.
"I was actually in Madrid to give evidence to the Chief Anti-Corruption Prosecutor about Russian corruption so he could prosecute them, and the same people I was giving evidence about were the ones that put me on the Interpol list," Browder recalled the incident in front of the House of Lords last week.
Last year, Ahmed Jaafar Mohamed Ali, a Bahrani dissident, was unlawfully extradited home after he was detained as a direct result of an Interpol Red Notice issued against him.
Russia is the most frequent abuser of Interpol Red Notices, having worked out long ago that the system represented a perfect way to extend its global reach.
To put the matter in context, Russia has less than 2% of the world’s population but is responsible for some 38% of all Red Notices issued that have been made public. With the vast majority of Red Notices only visible to law enforcement, it is impossible to say whether the full picture gets any better — or worse.
Where Russia has led, other autocratic regimes, most notably China, are now following.
Whilst the number of Chinese Red Notices is far behind the Russian total, China is increasingly using the Red Notice system as part of its sinister “persuasion to return” programme and as part of a much broader programme of transnational repression.
The persuasion to return policy is profoundly misleadingly named. Opponents and dissidents overseas often find themselves informed that their relatives in China have been arrested or that their family’s assets have been seized.
If these tactics are insufficient, a Red Notice request can add additional pressure.
Uyghurs notably pay the price
Whilst an increasing number of European countries are now refusing to extradite to China, not everywhere adopts the same approach.
Many countries, particularly in southeast Asia and Africa, do not share the same queasiness that Italy, Cyprus and the European Court of Human Rights do, all of whom have recently blocked the extradition of individuals of Chinese origin back to China.
China has increasingly used the Red Notice system to target Uyghur activists.
Although Uyghurs such as Dolkun Isa, former leader of the World Uyghur Congress, have successfully had Chinese-issued Red Notices deleted, the process can be lengthy and complicated.
Uyghur activist Yidiresi Aishan was arrested and imprisoned in Morocco on a Chinese-issued Red Notice and remains at risk of extradition to China.
Whilst Interpol is increasingly aware of Chinese attempts to manipulate and abuse its system, by the time Interpol had reviewed and removed the Red Notice against Aishan for being non-compliant with its own policies, it was too late for him.
At that point, Aishan had been arrested and detained one month prior.
Politically-motivated Red Notices have to stop
Interpol’s reputation has been badly damaged in recent years as a result of a number of scandals, including the conviction of a former Interpol president for corruption and the recent election of a UAE Major General — himself accused of complicity in torture — as the current president.
Thus, it is key to continue to call on Interpol to reform and urge democratic countries such as the UK, the US and others, who provide a majority of the organisation’s funding, to take a stand and force reform upon the much-abused system — as we have witnessed first-hand.
Chinese abuse of the system is being used as a tool of transnational repression to target activists and dissidents.
Unless the system is reformed — with proper checks and balances put in place to weed out politically motivated Red Notices before China and other repressive states weaponise them — the system will continue to lose credibility.
More lives will be irreparably damaged by a system which could and should be a force for good.
Ben Keith and Rhys Davies are UK-based barristers from IHR Advisors, an international legal experts group.
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