As the international community continues to normalize relations with the Syrian government, Syrians in the diaspora have expressed growing concerns for their safety. Yet their calls have gone largely ignored. Instead, countries like Jordan have acquiesced to Bashar Al-Assad’s reassimilation into regional politics, calculating that their domestic stability in the chaotic Middle East requires a working relationship with Damascus. International organizations are now choosing a similar route, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees which apparently entered into discussions with the Syrian government on refugee returns, despite ample documentation that Syrians face a multitude of threats to their safety if they returned home.
The international criminal police organization, Interpol, recently decided to lift restrictions imposed on Syria in 2012 and to re-integrate the country into its information exchange network. This decision was made despite a long history of autocratic regimes using Interpol as a tool to suppress dissidents. But past is prologue, and the worries of Syrian activists are well-founded given the Syrian government’s history of crackdowns on its opposition. To avoid complicity in human rights abuses, Interpol must prevent the issuance of unwarranted notices and states receiving such notices should scrutinize them for signs of abuse.
Interpol is an independent intergovernmental agency comprised of police forces from 192 countries. As the largest police organization in the world, it coordinates police action to “prevent and fight international crimes” through shared “police data and information, operational support, capacity-building, and training.” Contrary to popular belief, Interpol does not have the authority to exercise police powers in cooperating countries and instead relies upon domestic authorities to effectuate warrants and to seek extradition of suspects.
A key component of Interpol’s work is the issuance of color-coded notices to share or request crime-related information. Red notices are issued for wanted individuals who should be extradited. Orange notices warn of an imminent threat, such as a potential terrorist attack that threatens national security. Yellow is used to determine the whereabouts of missing persons, such as minors and those who cannot identify themselves. The purpose of green notices is to warn of people who committed criminal acts in one country and who might constitute a threat to public safety in another country. Blue notices are used to locate suspects and gather their identifying information. Finally, black notices find information on unidentified bodies. Special notices may be jointly issued with the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee to target individuals and entities under UN Security Council resolutions, such as Resolution 2253 about ISIL, Al-Qaeda, and other associated groups, undertakings, and entities.
Abuse of the Notice System
Various autocratic regimes whose police participate in Interpol have used the notice system to locate and punish opposition outside their borders. China, for example, has consistently issued red notices for Uyghur and pro-democracy activists. This is in line with its documented policy of forcing individuals abroad back to China where they face widespread human rights violations perpetrated by Chinese police, including arbitrary detention and torture. Following an attempted coup in 2016, Turkey engaged in similar activities by uploading notices for 60,000 people to Interpol’s notice system (only around 13,000 other new red notices were issued that year globally). The names included political refugees associated with the exiled Turkish cleric and alleged plotter of the coup, Fethullah Gulen. Similarly, in 2018, Venezuela requested the extradition of opposition leaders connected to an alleged assassination attempt of President Maduro. Tajikistan issued more than 2,500 red notices amounting to 2.3% of the total notices circulating in 2019, including one for Muhiddin Kabiri, a leader of the main opposition party. The nature of these abuses displays the various ways that states can manipulate the work of international organizations to further their political agendas. In terms of Interpol, states’ ability to misuse the system is not restricted to those with large populations or GDPs.
Syria and Interpol
Syria became a member state of Interpol in 1953, but faced restrictions in 2012 because of international sanctions that barred it from sending and receiving messages through the organization. Yet the removal of restrictions means that Syria can, once again, engage with the messaging system. And while representatives of Interpol note that Syria lacks the power to issue red notices, it can still request issuance through Interpol’s general secretariat, the body that first advocated for Syria’s reintegration into Interpol. For Syrians on the list, whether information about them is shared with the Syrian government will depend on the decision of national offices who can choose to withhold that information.
The Syrian government may attempt to subvert individuals affiliated with the opposition by extraditing them and subjecting them to punishment domestically. Names submitted for notices could even include recognized refugees who fled Syria because of opposition-related activities, thereby jeopardizing the protections to which they are entitled. Although Interpol adopted a policy in 2017 through which red notices could be removed for verified refugees, the process is complicated and requires that refugees request removal and notify Interpol, the judicial authority in the country that issued the notice, or the country where they live.
To prevent future abuse of the notification system, Interpol must establish concrete guidelines that allow the organization to fulfill its mission while limiting opportunities for governments to clampdown on dissidents. The guidelines should ensure that comprehensive case files substantiated by credible evidence are submitted to Interpol which provide a reasonable basis to believe that the individual committed a crime of the magnitude warranted by the notice. Further, ongoing immigration proceedings for individuals whose names were submitted for notification should not be impacted. Nor should immigration status be revoked simply because a warning is issued. Rather, members of Interpol must seriously consider individuals’ profile, their reasons for leaving Syria, the rationale for which Syria seeks their return, and the likelihood of a fair domestic conviction with proportional punishment. Furthermore, states receiving Interpol notices originating from the Syrian government should deeply scrutinize the information to ensure that the systems are not being used to identify and extradite political dissidents. As a multitude of recent reports have established, those forcibly returned to Syria face unlawful detention, torture, and extrajudicial executions. As such, states extraditing individuals to Syria based on Interpol notices may become complicit in human rights abuses should they ignore these warnings.