Amy Woolfson writes for The Legal Diary, published 30 June 2023. Click here to view the article on The Legal Diary website. 

In November 2024 Glasgow will host the 92nd INTERPOL General Assembly. This is only the third time the UK has hosted the General Assembly in the organisation’s 100-year history, and the first time since 1958.

This will be a significant event for INTERPOL as elections take place for key leadership posts, including the new Secretary General. It will also be a significant diplomatic event for the UK, as we host government and senior law enforcement personnel from 195 member states. Inevitably this will include controversial officials from repressive regimes.

The delegates won’t be the only controversial figures. Major General Ahmed Naser Al-Raisi, INTERPOL’s president faces allegations of torture relating to his tenure as a police chief in the United Arab Emirates. This includes the alleged torture of British citizens Matthew Hedges and Ali Issa Ahmed.

Ahead of the General Assembly and no doubt with an eye to potential protests and legal action, the UK has granted INTERPOL, its officials, and delegates wide-ranging diplomatic immunity.

INTERPOL is best known for the Red Notice system. Red Notices enable member states to share information about those convicted of or wanted to stand trial for serious criminal offences, with a view to their extradition.

In many countries a person can be arrested and detained on a Red Notice pending a formal extradition request from the requesting state. Even where arrest and detention are not an immediate risk, a Red Notice can seriously restrict a person’s freedom of movement and can be hugely damaging to a person’s reputation and finances.

INTERPOL tries hard to paint itself as a neutral conduit for law enforcement data sharing, but the reality often falls far short. INTERPOL’s principles of equal access for member states combined with a lack of proactive checks on the contents of Red Notices means that many are improperly targeted. This may be due to bad faith on the part of the issuing state (such as China’s Red Notice targeting World Uyghur Congress chair Dolkun Isa) or simply because poor quality Red Notices pass through INTERPOL’s systems without challenge. For example, a Red Notice might target a person for writing a bounced cheque, despite INTERPOL itself recognising that this is generally a civil rather than a criminal matter.

INTERPOL does have mechanisms for challenging Red Notices, but these are opaque and move slowly. Lawyers are familiar with those member states who are repeat offenders, but INTERPOL takes no steps to sanction these states, or even to subject them to heightened scrutiny.

And yet the UK has become increasingly reliant upon INTERPOL since Brexit. Firstly, having lost access to the European Arrest Warrant system, the National Crime Agency now uses the Red Notice system to share extradition requests with EU member states. And since 2021, it has been possible to arrest and detain a person in the UK pursuant to a Red Notice issued by a ‘trusted’ member state.

The UK Government is unlikely to use Glasgow 2024 as an opportunity to hold INTERPOL to account. But it does present an opportunity for activists to shine a light on its many inadequacies and abuses.

Amy Woolfson is a barrister who deals with extradition cases. Solicitors have instructed her in extradition hearings at all stages in Westminster Magistrates’ Court, from first appearances to final hearings. Amy has experience of complex international extradition cases including working with Ben Keith on a number of INTERPOL Red Notice cases.