The 89th General Assembly of the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) was held in Istanbul November 23-25, 2021. Before the meeting, there was serious criticism on three issues:
First, holding the Interpol meeting in Turkey, which is among the countries that abuse Interpol the most; second, the candidacy for the Interpol presidency of Ahmed Nasser Al Raisi, inspector general of the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) interior ministry, who is accused of torture and is the subject of investigations in some countries, including Turkey; and third, the candidacy of Hu Binchen from China for Interpol Executive Committee membership.
However, the meeting was held in Turkey. General Al Raisi was elected president for a four-year term. China’s Hu became a member of the Executive Committee. Turkey, which was looking forward to the meeting being held in Istanbul, succeeded in getting the head of the Turkish Interpol Department, Selçuk Sevgel, named the European delegate to the Interpol Executive Committee.
Major General Al Raisi is tainted by torture and numerous human rights violations, and there was a furor over him even before he was elected. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) wrote to the vice president of the European Commission warning that Al Raisi should not be appointed as the president of Interpol. Al Raisi was already one of the 13 Executive Committee members before the election. Although it is not known what was discussed and what kind of relations were established during Al Raisi’s lobbying visits to member countries before his candidacy, it is worth remembering that in recent years the UAE has donated to Interpol almost as much as the contribution of all member countries combined.
There is no doubt that the election results will damage the reputation and credibility of the organization. In fact Sarka Havrankova (Czech Republic), the current vice president of the Executive Committee, said before the vote on Al Raisi’s candidacy, “This is a test of the credibility and integrity of the organization.” We will see Interpol become the subject of criticism by the international community in the coming years.
How will the inclusion of the new members elected from countries with poor human rights records in management positions at Interpol affect the work of the organization? Will political dissidents fleeing the oppression and persecution of dictatorial regimes and seeking asylum in other countries be affected?
First of all, it bears repeating that Turkey was the only country to volunteer to host the meeting in 2021, and since there was no alternative candidate, it was agreed at the previous General Assembly to hold the meeting in Turkey. That is to say, contrary to Turkey’s claims, this meeting was not held in Turkey because the member states considered Turkey a very important country.
The statement made by Secretary General Jürgen Stock after Al Raisi was elected president by the General Assembly is also noteworthy. In an effort to soften the criticism, he said both in word and by body language that Interpol would abide by the norms of law. “I’m taking the responsibility very seriously to ensure every single piece of information which goes through Interpol’s channels is in line with our rules and regulations, and that we respect and protect human rights,” Stock said.
When the results of the presidential election were announced on the Interpol website, it was stated that Al Raisi was elected with 68.9 percent of the votes cast in the third round. According to the Interpol Constitution, a two-thirds majority is required for the election of the president. Interpol’s reminder that if this percentage could not be achieved in the first two rounds, a simple majority would suffice in the third round showed that the General Secretariat was not very satisfied with the election results.
Although the president of Interpol is the organization’s number-one in the hierarchy, he actually holds a symbolic office. The main executive power rests with the secretary general of Interpol. The president’s role is to supervise the implementation of decisions taken at the General Assembly during his four-year term and to preside over meetings of the Executive Committee, which meets three times a year. Therefore, it can be said that he will not be effective, especially as regards the functioning of Interpol in general. Moreover, after all the negative comments and criticism about him, everything he says or does will be scrutinized. China’s Meng Hongwei, who presided over Interpol a few years ago, was unable to be a determining factor in the organization’s policies.
Months before the meeting, Yavuz Selim Kıran, Turkey’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, and Lütfi Çiçek, the then-head of the Turkish Interpol Department, stated that there were problems in relations with Interpol. They said Turkey’s requests were rejected by Interpol and that at the meeting to be held in Turkey, they would have the opportunity to better explain Turkey’s position. They said social programs were prepared for the delegates and their families. Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu has long criticized Interpol for rejecting Turkey’s Red Notice requests and for restricting data entry into Interpol databases.
Following a controversial coup attempt, Turkey investigated more than 600,000 people on allegations of terrorism based on the Anti-Terror Law and arrested nearly 100,000. Tens of thousands of people fled abroad for fear of arbitrary detention and torture. Turkey wanted to abuse the Interpol Constitution by way of Red Notices to bring back its political opponents who were able to flee abroad. It unlawfully put “lost” or “stolen” annotations on hundreds of thousands of people’s passports and attempted to upload them to Interpol databases. When the situation was noticed, Interpol started to reject the requests from Turkey. At the meeting, Turkey sought ways to lift Interpol’s restrictions. Using its advantage of hosting the event, Minister Soylu repeated these expectations in the opening speech of the Interpol meeting. His team lobbied the delegates throughout the meeting. However, according to media reports, the Turkish government was unable to get what it wanted. The secretary general of Interpol responded to Turkey on the first day of the meeting and said: “The General Secretariat will enforce the rules, as defined by the General Assembly. Requests that do not fall within those boundaries do not belong at Interpol. They will be declined. Repeating them won’t change the outcome. It will just flood our systems and damage legitimate information exchange.”
Between 2013 and 2021, lawlessness peaked in Turkey, and Sevgel, who was elected to the Executive Committee, was actively working in the Anti-Smuggling and Organized Crime Department, which played an important role in the lawlessness. He was recently appointed to the Interpol Department by Interior Minister Soylu. His election to the committee should not be given much importance. It is highly likely that Sevgel will often bring Turkey’s views to the agenda. However, since he will attend the Executive Committee meetings three times a year, representing Turkey, which is known for its abuse of Interpol, any issue he brings to the agenda or any opinion he expresses will be treated with caution. Moreover, the Executive Committee has no operational power.
How will this affect people who have sought asylum in other countries because of the oppression and persecution they have experienced in their homeland?
Persons applying for political asylum or obtaining “refugee” status are subject to the 1951 Refugee Convention. According to international law, it is not possible to issue a Red Notice or return them to their country of origin. The secretary general emphasized this point once again at the meeting in Turkey. In other words, nothing will change in Interpol practices on the Western front. However, people who are refugees abroad should refrain from going to countries where the law does not work well, where democracy is not developed or which are thought to be under the influence of dictatorships.
Interpol will continue to be criticized over its elected officials. Making room for dictatorial regimes that seek to realize their political goals through Interpol would, of course, be a stain on the organization’s reputation. However, it can be predicted that Interpol, which is already under harsh criticism, will continue to implement its policies more sensitively, respecting human rights. The statements and determined attitude of Interpol Secretary General Stock are also encouraging. It is unlikely that the General Secretariat will change the practices it has followed so far. Therefore, a change in Interpol’s policies and practices should not be expected.
Representatives of countries with poor human rights records will not be able to play an active role in Interpol implementations due to their notoriety in the international arena.
From what is reflected in the press, no important issues were among the decisions made at the meeting. The decisions taken (Resolutions) are available on Interpol’s website. It is not known what was discussed during backstage activities and at bilateral meetings. Dictatorial regimes can influence underdeveloped countries with diplomacy, the commitment of investment and even bribery. Even if a very democratic president is elected, dictatorial regimes will not refrain from abusing international mechanisms to seize their opponents and will not abandon their lobbying or their efforts to influence undeveloped countries.
Yet, Interpol needs to be warier of the demands of dictatorial regimes, at least not allow these countries to host Interpol activities. Treating countries abusing Interpol as if they are not breaking any rules is disrespectful to the laws of other democratic countries.
However, Interpol, the UN and EU institutions in particular and all other organizations and NGOs that investigate various criminal activities such as drugs, weapons and human trafficking, money laundering and terrorism should feel responsible for monitoring the activities of dictatorial regimes.
* S. Ahmet Eren is a retired 1st degree chief superintendent and former assistant director at the Interpol General Secretariat (2009-2014).