Explainer: INTERPOL Red Notices and the Quest to Balance Justice and Geopolitics in Global Law Enforcement Features
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Explainer: INTERPOL Red Notices and the Quest to Balance Justice and Geopolitics in Global Law Enforcement

This piece has been corrected to reflect the fact that Russia only attempted to issue Red Notices against Bill Browder eight times. An erroneous claim that Russia accounts for 33 percent of all Red Notices was also removed, along with one that stated INTERPOL’s data processing policy for refugees is new. An INTERPOL spokesperson reached out to JURIST disputing Ben Keith’s quoted assertion in a CBS interview that INTERPOL’s constitution “says that they are meant to believe their member states.” The actual text of that constitution indeed says no such thing, but CBS has said that “Keith stands by his interpretation.” 

The International Criminal Police Organization, better known as INTERPOL, aims to foster global law enforcement collaboration. With a mission to “connect police for a safer world,” it operates as a vital hub, facilitating the exchange of crucial information among police forces worldwide. At the heart of its operations lies a sophisticated alert system, known as notices, which color-codes and disseminates intelligence on potential threats, crimes, and criminals across member countries. Among these notices, the “Red Notice” is the most well-known, signifying pursuit for individuals of grave concern. However, recent years have cast a shadow over the Red Notice system, with mounting concerns about its exploitation by authoritarian regimes seeking to target individuals for political motives rather than genuine criminal pursuits.

In this explainer, we explore Red Notices and the controversy they court.

What is a Red Notice?

A Red Notice is an alert from a member country that they are pursuing the location, arrest and possible extradition of a specific individual. Contrary to popular belief, while they are based on national arrest warrants they are not an international arrest warrant. Rather, they are used by forces to identify fugitives wanted for the most serious of offences such as murder, terrorism, human trafficking and organised crime. They serve as an alert when that particular fugitive passes through immigration control and often result in their arrest and the start of extradition proceedings. The issuance of a Red Notice therefore makes international travel almost impossible for the individual concerned. As of February 2024, there were 6,815 public Red Notices available to see online.

Before issuing a Red Notice, INTERPOL’s Notices and Diffusions Task Force must review the request. The task force consists of a team of legal professionals who look at relevant information to ascertain whether the notice complies with the INTERPOL Constitution and rules. They consider a number of factors, including the status of the person, the circumstances of the charges and case and whether the notice was issued amid domestic or international unrest in the member state. Despite the apparent systematic processing and oversight, the review system has been faulted for its lack of comprehensive scrutiny and Red Notices have come under criticism for their apparent exploitation by repressive regimes.

How are Red Notices considered controversial at times?

INTERPOL undoubtedly does a lot of good, including, among countless other successes, the arrests of Radovan Karadžić, French serial killer Charles Sobhraj and the second most wanted man in Italy, Rocco Morabito, after he had been a fugitive for over 20 years. They also count the rescue of 50 children in Thailand and the recovery of stolen artefacts as more recent achievements. However, the abuse of the Red Notice system has become a point of concern over recent years, with authoritarian regimes using them to target dissidents, political opponents and high net-worth individuals.

One of the most high-profile cases was Bill Browder, an American-born financier who at one time was the CEO and co-founder of the largest foreign portfolio investor in Russia. This was until he and his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, uncovered corruption at the heart of Russia’s government. Following this, Magnitsky was arrested and tragically died in the Russian penal system. Russian officials levied charges against Browder and attempted to issue eight Red Notices against him, to try and bring him into custody.

Allegations of abuse of the Red Notice system also include China’s targeting of Uyghurs and the United Arab Emirates’ misuse of the system to pursue those who are seen as a threat to the regime. The election of Ahmed Naser Al-Raisi, an Emirati general who had been accused of torture, to the president of Interpol was met with controversy.

In a recent interview with CBS 60 Minutes, Ben Keith and Rhys Davies, UK barristers who specialise in the removal of Red Notices, said of INTERPOL:

“Their constitution says that they are meant to believe their member states. And so when a member state, Russia, China, Turkey, whose rule of law is often nonexistent, say to them a particular person is wanted for a criminal offence, they are bound by their constitution to believe them.” 

The consequences for those affected by bogus Red Notices can be devastating, with individuals’ freedom of movement and livelihoods severely restricted, not to mention the psychological impact of being labelled a serious criminal and the constant fear of being extradited. They cannot appeal to any international or national court.

As Ben Keith notes:

“We’re concerned about the rule of law and human rights, and Interpol are concerned about trying to catch people who are allegedly criminals. A lot of innocent people get caught up in the middle. It feels a bit like that’s the sort of price they’re prepared to pay for catching the bad guys. And we think that the price that is paid is far too high.” 

What has INTERPOL said on the matter? 

Secretary General of INTERPOL, Jürgen Stock, is aware of the shortcomings of the Red Notice system and said “I’m not saying that the system is perfect. We see wrong decisions on a national level. And we have seen wrong decisions also in Interpol. That is correct, a small number of cases.”

At last year’s General Assembly in Vienna, INTERPOL celebrated its centenary. The organisation has pledged to further increase scrutiny of Red Notice requests and, in 2022, around 1,500 notices were rejected.