Russia is abusing the Interpol system to achieve its goals.
May 2nd, 2019
Ted Bromund studies Anglo-American relations, U.S. relations with Europe and the EU, and the U.S.’s leadership role in the world.
Earlier this month the Russian Federation made its seventh request for action through Interpol against Bill Browder. The odds that Interpol will grant this request are very low, and the odds that Browder will actually be sent to Russia from his home in Britain are far lower. But the request nonetheless illustrates Russia’s assiduous efforts to abuse the Interpol system, and the need to take action to deter abuse.
Browder is a Russian target preeminently because of his leadership in securing the passage of legislation in the U.S. — and increasingly in other countries — to sanction Russia for its human rights abuses. This Magnitsky legislation, named after Browder’s lawyer who was murdered by the Russian authorities, is a thorn in the Russian side, both for its practical effects and — even more — because it has the temerity to call Russia’s criminal regime what it is: criminal.
As a result, Russia has assiduously abused the Interpol system by requesting action through it against Browder. Interpol abuse is not a vague concept: it consists of using Interpol for political, racial, religious, or military purposes, and Russia’s harassment of Browder is clearly political. As a result, Interpol has — quite properly — repeatedly refused to publish a Red Notice on Browder, and when Russia snuck a different kind of alert (known as a diffusion) through Interpol’s system, it was cancelled.
It’s not quite right to say that the mere fact that Interpol has received these requests is the problem. The fact is that, at least as it operates today, Interpol can no more refuse to receive a request than a mailbox can refuse to receive a letter: the box is open for everyone. Interpol responded to this latest Russian request by notifying Browder that its Commission for the Control of Files (CCF) would examine the request at its next session. On past form, there is every likelihood that the CCF will turn the Russian request down flat.
But that is not, or at least should not, be the end of this matter. First, according to Reuters, Russia sought not the publication of a Red Notice, but the transmission of a diffusion. The CCF reportedly notified Browder’s attorneys that: “The NCB of Russia has authorized the Commission to disclose to you its wish to request police cooperation for your client through an INTERPOL diffusion to arrest.”
This is curious. Russia could transmit a diffusion on Browder at any time, without Interpol’s approval or prior review. It must, however, recognize that such a diffusion would be deleted almost immediately. Its effort to use the diffusion is therefore a particularly subtle form of abuse: it wants the freedom to use a diffusion, which is less structured than a Red Notice, while at the same time securing Interpol’s approval in advance for whatever that diffusion might end up containing. This particular form of abuse is new to me, and it is very clever. But again, call a spade a spade: it is abuse.
Equally curious is Russia’s decision to authorize the CCF to disclose its request to Browder. It did not have to do this. I interpret this as a recognition on Russia’s part that the CCF — given Browder’s prominence — was inevitably going to ask Russia for permission to disclose to Browder, and that it was therefore quicker for Russia to grant permission at the start. In other words, what looks like a kind of openness and flexibility is actually evidence of a desire to press on with its abuse as rapidly as possible.
The broader problem is not simply that these requests are abusive. It is that Russia — and any other Interpol member nation — can keep on making them and suffer no consequences at all. Interpol itself has acknowledged that repeated requests for the same individual can be evidence of abuse, and analysts of Interpol abuse have made a similar point. So did Browder himself, in commenting that: “Something needs to be fixed at Interpol if dictators can go back unlimited times to chase their enemies with bogus warrants.”
That is quite right. But as long as the mailbox is open for everyone, this is a hard problem to solve. Yes, Interpol could just preemptively turn down any Russian request for Browder without any consideration at all. But Interpol is based on the idea that all its member nations are equally responsible, and if that is its starting point, Interpol has no basis for rejecting one kind of application preemptively.
My own view is that it is past time for Interpol to start suspending grossly abusive member nations from Interpol membership. Interpol can do this, entirely off its own bat, for a period of three months. This is a controversial idea and unpopular even within the Interpol reform community, but I believe that, unless Interpol establishes deterrent power, these kind of abuses will continue. I also believe that the best way to establish deterrent power is to make sure that abuse has consequences. And the most serious consequence within Interpol’s power to impose is a three-month suspension.
These Russian requests are abusive: no one with any credibility disputes that. They waste Interpol’s time, and more seriously, they waste the CCF’s much more limited time. Though they are the most visible part of Russia’s portfolio of abuse, they are definitely only part of that portfolio. There is not the slightest evidence that the current approach of fighting Russian abuse on a case-by-case basis is ending or diminishing its flow, and since Russia can abuse much faster than the opponents of that abuse can respond, there is no reason to believe that case-by-case responses will ever stem the flow.
Russia has escalated its abuses over the past decade, and we need to respond, both to show Russia that its actions have consequences, and to prove to other abusers that we are not patsies. A suspension is completely within Interpol’s rules. Though other nations — like Turkey — may be just as, if not more, abusive, there is no reason not to start by suspending the nation that, more than any other, invented and personifies Interpol abuse: the Russian Federation.
This is not just about Browder. And it is not just about whether Interpol’s rule against political abuse has any meaning. It is about whether ALL of Interpol’s rules have any meaning — and those rules include the possibility of suspensions for persistent abusers. That rule deserves as much respect as the others.