As INTERPOL celebrates a milestone anniversary in 2023, we consider some of the underlying issues with the Red Notice system and what this means for the next 100 years.

INTERPOL was founded in 1923 at the second International Criminal Police Congress in Vienna, Austria. The event was attended by representatives from 20 countries. Gradually, the sophistication of INTERPOL increased and the first Red Notice was issued in 1947 in relation to a Russian man accused of murdering a police officer. Since then, INTERPOL has developed in ways inconceivable to those who were involved in its conception in 1923. The agency has expanded to encompass 195 member states and it issues more than 10,000 Red Notices every year, and at least 12,000 more informal diffusion notices.

Despite the work INTERPOL has done to increase cross-border cooperation and bring criminals to justice, it has long been a target for criticism.

Operating in the dark

Since its inception, INTERPOL has never been renowned for its transparency. The vast majority of INTERPOL Red Notices are not public – currently, only about 7,000 Red Notices are published on INTERPOL’s website, despite more than 11,000 being issued in 2022 alone.

In practice it is notoriously difficult for those subject to a Red Notice to gain clarity over the progress of any challenges to the validity of the Red Notice naming them, or even to know that they have been named. An individual can make a direct request to INTERPOL to determine if they are the subject of a Red Notice or if any other data concerning them is held on INTERPOL’s files. However, this results in the authorities in the requesting state being consulted and asked whether they consent to the information being disclosed. If they refuse, the individual is left in a state of limbo.

Last year, INTERPOL published key operational data including the number of applications for Red Notices it had received and rejected, as well as the number of Red Notices actually published. As we wrote at the time, this was an encouraging step towards improving transparency. However, the data did not distinguish between Red Notices INTERPOL refused to issue and Red Notices which were issued but then cancelled after being found to be non-compliant.

A tool of oppression?

The predominant criticism of INTERPOL’s Red Notice system has been that it can be abused by persons in the requesting state for illegitimate purposes, such as pressuring business rivals in civil litigation or intimidating political opponents abroad.

The lack of transparency is no doubt one factor which contributes to this unsatisfactory position. A closer look at the inner workings of INTERPOL reveals two others.

Weak or lacking scrutiny: Requests for Red Notices are supposed to be reviewed by the Notices and Diffusions Task Force, to ensure compliance with INTERPOL’s own rules and constitution, before they are issued. However, INTERPOL is a notoriously under-resourced and under-staffed body meaning that this review may be carried out with a light touch – if it happens at all. The consequences of this lack of scrutiny can be devastating to the subject of a Red Notice even if it is later cancelled.

For illustration, Uyghur activist Idris Hasan was arrested in Morocco in July 2021 following the issuing of an INTERPOL Red Notice requested by China. INTERPOL subsequently cancelled the notice, but Hasan has remained imprisoned for over 2 years in Tiflet.

Lack of independence: The inherent structure of INTERPOL means that it is reliant on international cooperation in order to carry out its functions. This means that the relationship between member states and INTERPOL is one of co-dependence. There is also a distinct lack of external, independent scrutiny of the agency. Its decisions are final, and although there is a framework for challenging Red Notices, this is entirely within the INTERPOL sphere – there is no possibility of challenge to a court or other external body. Furthermore, despite being based in France, INTERPOL benefits from immunity from legal action in that country, and elsewhere.

Reasons for optimism

There appears to be an appetite for change at INTERPOL. In addition to the unprecedented disclosure of Red Notice data in 2022, there have been a number of reforms over the last 10 years. These have included the adoption of a refugee policy in 2015, a review of the Red Notice process between 2016 and 2019, endorsement of a data processing policy in 2017, and increased financial support for NCBs, at member country-level, between 2016 and 2019. In 2016, INTERPOL also established the Notices and Diffusions Task Force, made up of lawyers, police officers and operational specialists, to review requests for Red Notices and existing notices. It has also continued to refine the rules and processes of the Commission for the Control of INTERPOL’s Files (CCF), which INTERPOL describes as “an independent body that ensures that all personal data processed through INTERPOL's channels conforms to the rules of the Organization”. The Task Force, along with an increasingly robust CCF, should bring more scrutiny, integrity and consistency to the Red Notice system.

The agency received its first real increase to statutory contributions (obligatory annual payments made by member countries) since 2009 in November 2021, and will receive an additional 7 million euros of funding in 2023 and an additional 10 million euros in 2024. However, the majority of INTERPOL’s funding (55.5% in 2022) continues to come from voluntary sources; this includes contributions from private entities and non-governmental organisations, as well as government agencies from member countries.

The steps INTERPOL has taken towards improving its transparency, although small, do at least represent a move in the right direction.

Looking towards the next 100 years

Undoubtedly, there are issues with the operation of INTERPOL. However, it remains a unique body designed to facilitate information sharing and international police cooperation worldwide. As noted, reforms are taking place which indicate a positive attitude towards change, albeit the pace of progress in this area is slow.

With mounting international pressure, in order to survive – and thrive – INTERPOL will have to seriously consider more significant and wholescale reforms. These should include:

  1. The instigation of a new external body, entirely independent of INTERPOL, with the remit to review challenges to INTERPOL’s decisions (for example, a refusal by the CCF to delete a Red Notice), and the power to quash decisions;
  2. Committing to publishing comprehensive, granular data, on an annual basis, regarding Red Notice decisions; and
  3. Improvements to bring about quicker decisions by the CCF when considering applications for access to data held on INTERPOL’s files (currently up to four months) and deletion of Red Notices and other data (currently up to nine months).

It is important to remember that INTERPOL does not operate in a vacuum – it is reliant on support from its member states. Even with the recent increases in funding, average statutory contributions from the majority of member states amounted to less than 30,000 euros per country in 2022. In order for there to be meaningful change, there will need to be meaningful, mandatory financial contributions from member states.