Interpol is in many ways a strange organization. Strange, because most of what people know about it is wrong. For example, it’s not an international police force; it’s more like an international police bulletin board. Strange because, unlike too many international organizations, it exists more for what it does than what it says. And strange because, though like the U.N. it’s numerically dominated by the autocracies, it has escaped being organizationally dominated by them: the secretary general of Interpol has always been French, British, or–as today–American.
The democratic dominance of Interpol likely reflects the fact that it does something useful. Democracies have no great incentive to invest scarce diplomatic capital in reforming the various U.N. talking shops, but if Interpol goes badly awry, terrorists, fraudsters, and child molesters will have a much longer leash. To my mind, the democratic lack of interest in the U.N. is short-sighted, because talk does have consequences. But it’s clear that the U.S. is willing to give the U.N. a pass on bad behavior that it would never countenance from Interpol.
Unfortunately, in recent years, thanks to the machinations of its autocratic members, Interpol itself has begun to go slightly off the rails. The problem began in 2003, when Interpol brought its I-24/7 network into operation. This electronic system has made it easier for law enforcement agencies to cooperate internationally–which is good–but also easier to submit requests for official Interpol circulation (in the form of Interpol Red Notices) of national wanted notices.
The volume of traffic has since grown more than tenfold, and it is now too large for Interpol to apply effectively its constitutionally-mandated standard of avoiding involvement in political and religious cases. Since Interpol operates on the presumption that all of its members–Iran and the U.S. alike–are legally equal, the potential for abuse is obvious. Autocracies have realized that they can use the Interpol system to harass dissidents, political opponents, and unlucky businessmen, and they have done so with avidity. And since Interpol wants to keep everyone in the boat, it unfortunately also has an incentive not to uphold its own standards.
A Red Notice makes it dangerous to travel and difficult to keep a bank account open, and in the eyes of much of the world, it brands its subject as a wanted criminal. For places like Russia, that has been a godsend. The British NGO Fair Trials International two weeks ago published a damning report on cases of Interpol abuse, and–with my co-author, Dave Kopel–I have released a Heritage Foundation paper on Interpol’s achievements and dilemmas. It is hard, thanks to the secrecy that–to an extent understandably–surrounds Interpol to get an accurate sense of the number of abuse cases as a percent of the total. But problems occur with depressing regularity.
The case of Zurab Adeishvili illustrates the point. Adeishvili was a Georgian reformer and a leading member of the pro-Western government of Mikheil Saakashvili. Just before the elections of October 2012 that resulted in the defeat of Saakashvili’s party and the victory of the pro-Russian Georgian Dream party (led by Bidzina Ivanishvili), Adeishvili was accused of responsibility for abuses in the prison system, an accusation that likely played a role in the election’s outcome. In late 2012 and early 2013, Adeishvili was charged in absentia with a wide-ranging set of crimes, including the “attempted bankruptcy” of Cartu Bank, which by a curious coincidence was owed by now-Prime Minister Ivanishvili and his family.
It’s dangerous to pronounce on guilt or innocence in a pending case. But the evidence that the case against Adeishvili was predominantly political is strong. Georgia’s new foreign minister defended the prosecution of Saakashvili’s supporters on the grounds that they were “criminals and guilty.” A wide-ranging group of Western political figures, including the secretary-general of NATO, a series of U.S. senators and congressmen, many European politicians and newspapers, and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concerns that the new Georgian regime was selectively prosecuting opposition leaders. The charge of “attempted bankruptcy” is also a warning sign: under Putin, Russia and its friends have been fond of using charges of corruption to smear anyone who gets in their way.
All of this should have been enough to prevent Interpol from acting in the Adeishvili case, especially as he has since been granted refugee status by Hungary. Interpol had been warned that the case against Adeishvili bore the marks of a political prosecution. But in mid-November 2013, it issued a Red Notice on Adeishvili, in much the same way as it acted against U.S. businessman Ilya Katsnelson in 2008 (targeted by Russia), Iranian exile Shahram Homayoun in 2009 (Iran), and Estonian politician Eerik-Niiles Kross (Russia again) earlier this year.
The latest twist in the Adeishvili case came last week, when a major witness was himself arrested and recanted his evidence. A year ago, Max Boot commented on the Red Notice case of former Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi that, even if al-Hashemi is guilty, the fact that Iraqi courts are not credibly independent creates the perception that the case is a political vendetta. The same is true here: the question for Interpol is not whether Adeishvili is guilty, a matter that it is neither its job nor ours to assess. It is whether the case appears to be sufficiently political to create reasonable doubt. If there was not enough doubt before, there certainly is now.
In cases like this, Interpol may deem it safer to give the benefit of the doubt not to the accused, but to its member state. But that involves Interpol in political cases and makes it into an agent of the autocracies. It also imperils Interpol’s standing in the democracies. This is how international organizations go bad, and while Interpol is far from bad today, it is time for the democracies to take action to make sure it continues to serve a useful and proper role.