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Necessary Reforms Can Keep Interpol Working in the U.S. Interest

Ted Bromund and David Kopel

27 Dec 2023

Interpol’s Vulnerability to Totalitarian Abuse

On April 23, 2012, the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) denied an Egyptian request to issue a Red Notice—often incorrectly described as an international arrest warrant—for 15 personnel from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that receive U.S. funding, whom the Egyptian government accused of illegally operating pro-democracy programs.[1] Several months later, the issue arose again when Egypt announced that it would seek Interpol’s cooperation in securing the arrest and extradition of seven individuals associated with the production of a controversial Internet video.[2] Again, Interpol refused to act, noting that its constitution prohibited it from becoming involved in religious controversies.[3]

These incidents illustrate the substantial strengths and potential weaknesses of Interpol. Among Interpol’s strengths is its awareness that it must respect its constitution as it facilitates international cooperation against crime and that redefining political or religious disputes as criminal would violate its constitution and destroy the organization.

But Interpol’s potential weaknesses are serious: Like most international organizations, Interpol requires neither democracy nor respect in practice for the rule of law as a condition of membership. Interpol’s high name recognition and global reach encourage its autocratic member nations to exploit that recognition and reach and to use them as instruments of repression. In an era when many nations are seeking to criminalize speech and accusations of financial crimes have become a favorite weapon of autocracies against political opponents, Interpol faces the difficult challenge of remaining true to its constitution.

U.S. participation in Interpol serves U.S. national interests. It should continue and even be enhanced. However, Interpol is not without problems, and it is in the interest of both the U.S. and Interpol to address these faults before they lead to the persecution of innocent people and thereby damage Interpol’s reputation in and usefulness to the United States and other law-abiding democracies.

More broadly, Interpol offers an example of a dilemma that the U.S. confronts regularly. Some international organizations or initiatives are so useless and dangerous that the U.S. should withdraw from them.[4] Yet many international organizations, although flawed by the inclusion of autocratic regimes, nevertheless benefit the United States. This is the case with Interpol.

With these organizations, the best long-term solution for the U.S. is to seek to exclude the autocrats or to establish new organizations that require democracy, or at least respect for the rule of law, as a condition of membership. In the short term, the U.S. must decide how to work within the existing organization in ways that protect U.S. interests and advance American values. In this broader context, Interpol is a case study in the problems inherent for the U.S., as a sovereign and law-abiding democracy, in a world in which international organizations have too readily given membership to autocratic regimes.

Interpol’s Vulnerability to Totalitarian Abuse

In 1914, Prince Albert I of Monaco convened a conference in Monte Carlo to discuss international cooperation against crime. The idea was revived after World War I by Johann Schober, the police chief of Vienna, Austria, who in 1923 convinced police agencies from 20 nations to join his new International Criminal Police Commission (ICPC).[5]

From the start, the ICPC emphasized respect for national sovereignty. It was also designed to ignore political differences, include police organizations from nations such as Fascist Italy, and concentrate on international cooperation against such crimes as counterfeiting. Then as now, the ICPC’s mantra was that it was apolitical and concerned only with improving police efficiency.[6]

But efficiency is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end, and that end can be evil. Regrettably, the ICPC’s commitment to efficiency did not protect it from totalitarian abuse. Shortly after the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, Nazi supporters began to infiltrate the ICPC, which was always headed by the chief of the Vienna police.[7] After Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, ICPC President Michael Skubl was thrown in prison and replaced by Otto Steinhausl, a reliable Nazi.[8] Shockingly, this did not stop the U.S. Congress from authorizing U.S. participation in the ICPC in June 1938.[9] The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) did not cut off contact with the ICPC until three days before Pearl Harbor.[10]

After Steinhausl died in June 1940, he was replaced by the notorious Reinhard Heydrich, Chief of the German Security Police, who moved the ICPC headquarters to Berlin.[11] The ICPC files contained information on the religious affiliation and sexual orientation of suspects and convicts that the Nazis used to locate and arrest Jews and homosexuals.[12]

The Nazis found it easy to take over the ICPC precisely because it was apolitical. As scholar Mathieu Deflem notes, the ICPC “machinery … could be used by any police—loyal to whatever political purpose and ideological persuasion—that participated in, or had taken control of, the organization.”[13] The ICPC’s emphasis on apolitical efficiency and failure to require that member police agencies be democratically accountable made it “amenable to be politicized by whoever had control of the organization.”[14]

After World War II, the ICPC was refounded at a conference in Brussels.[15] By 1950, it had 20 full-time employees supplied by the French Interior Ministry.[16] Productivity was low. According to its annual report in 1950, the ICPC in the previous year had circulated 207 notices, indexed the names of 92 international criminals, reported on 52 drug cases, and circulated descriptions of 26 drug criminals. The result had been a mere 20 arrests and the identification of seven other individuals through the ICPC “fingerprint club.”[17]

The FBI joined the postwar ICPC but proceeded with caution. While the USSR did not participate in the ICPC, several Communist regimes in Eastern Europe—Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria—maintained the memberships of their previous non-Communist governments.[18] The FBI ignored all communications that the ICPC transmitted from these dictatorships and discontinued participation in the ICPC radio network.[19]

The FBI was right to be cautious. In March 1950, 10 Czechoslovakian dissidents hijacked a plane and flew to West Germany, where they were granted political asylum.[20] At the request of the Czechoslovak government, the ICPC put out a Red Notice—a formal notification by the Czechoslovak government that the Czechs were criminal fugitives and would be extradited if apprehended—on the dissidents. In response, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered the FBI to withdraw from the ICPC.[21] As a result of the furor, Czechoslovakia and the other Communist regimes dropped out in 1951–1952.[22]

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