Interpol fights for survival on its 100th birthday

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LYON, France — A century after it was founded, the world’s only global crime-fighting organization faces an existential question: Does the world still need it?

Rising geopolitical tensions including between the United States and Russia and China are challenging the agency’s operating model, which relies on voluntary information-sharing among its members’ police forces. 

Add to that persistent claims that its famed Red Notice alert system is subject to political manipulation and accusations of complicity in torture against Interpol’s Emirati president, Ahmed Naser Al-Raisi, and the crime-fighting organization faces a perfect storm.

In an interview with POLITICO, Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock said the institution faces numerous difficulties, including over its funding situation. But he argued an agency that spans the globe is needed now more than ever amid international child sexual abuse, environmental crime and mafia groups like Italy’s ‘Ndrangheta.

“The challenges are huge. I cannot say we are sufficiently resourced,” Stock said as the agency marks 100 years since it was founded in Vienna.

“We are overwhelmed by cases of online child sexual exploitation. We are overwhelmed by cases of cybercrime … We are overwhelmed by drug trafficking,” he said. Such international operations are extremely resource-intensive, added the German former high-ranking police official.

His pitch is that the global community can only tackle these kind of crimes through cooperation. “That is why a global platform is more important than ever. Can you consider if Interpol would not exist? People would say, we need such an agency.”

He cited looming recession and the energy crisis as the main drags on Interpol’s funding push. Asked how much Interpol seeks, Stock did not name a figure, but said tens of millions of euros would be needed to sustain new systems for data and biometric analysis that have not been fully funded.

With 195 member countries as of 2022, the agency’s total revenue in 2022 was €195 million, of which €86 million was “voluntary contributions” — money that member countries contribute to support certain projects.

One of the complaints dogging Interpol is that its funding model is heavily reliant on members’ goodwill. Corporations including Philip Morris and associations like FIFA used to also donate large sums until Stock put an end to the practice in 2014 — a decision he said led to a “difficult couple of years.”

Yet Interpol remains beholden to its government donors including the European Union, its largest single contributor, to pony up cash to support projects or bolster the agency’s capacity to analyze large data sets, for example.

In March 2017, the agency received €50 million from the United Arab Emirates. Months later, its members elected as its president Emirati Major General Ahmed Nasser al-Raisi, who faced complaints lodged in France and Turkey a few months before his nomination over accusations of torture, which allegedly took place in 2018. The UAE’s foreign ministry rejected the complaints as “without foundation.”

Asked about the claims against al-Raisi, Stock said they “are aware of the accusation,” adding that it is an “ongoing matter” and that it would be “inappropriate and immature” to comment further. He also defended the UAE donation, saying Interpol was “not a rich organization” and that the UAE did not decide precisely how the money would be spent.

In addition, Red Notices — which signal that a person is wanted by a member country, but is not an arrest warrant — face criticism that they can be manipulated by repressive regimes pursuing political opponents. A 2022 report from the European Parliament said political use of Red Notices was a persistent “problem,” citing the example of a Ukrainian opera director who was arrested in Italy following a Red Notice issued by Russia.

Stock acknowledged that Russia’s war against Ukraine has “had an impact on police cooperation,” but argued the Red Notice system was sound. “We are checking intensively whether the request is in line with Interpol’s procedures,” he said, adding that Interpol is not a “quasi-court.”

While critics say Interpol is hamstrung by its inability to pursue state-backed criminals and terrorists, Stock argued that it’s precisely the agency’s studied neutrality — which does not allow any member to compel any other to do anything — that allows it to be effective in what it can do.

Stock term’s as Interpol secretary-general, essentially its chief executive, ends in late 2024. Stephen Kavanagh, Interpol’s executive director for police services and, as of Wednesday, a candidate to be Stock’s successor, argued that Interpol’s staying power through 100 years was due to its low profile.

“The reason we are surviving despite the scale of global conflict is because we don’t try to exert power over our members. We can’t order countries to investigate or not investigate — which allows us to be effective in bolstering cooperation,” Kavanagh said.