In the high-stakes drama over the detention of Interpol President Meng Hongwei, one thing stands out. It’s the plea the international police agency’s secretary-general, Juergen Stock, made to his captors in China.
Over the weekend, Stock officially requested that Chinese police clarify the status of Meng, who had not been heard from since leaving Interpol’s headquarters in Lyon, France, to travel to Beijing nearly a week before. “Interpol’s General Secretariat looks forward to an official response from China’s authorities to address concerns over the President’s well-being,” Stock said in a statement.
On Sunday the Chinese government fessed up. Meng had been arrested on charges of bribery and corruption, it announced. On Monday, Chinese authorities notified the world that Meng had resigned from his position at Interpol.
Think about that for a moment. Chinese authorities appear to have abducted Interpol’s president. In response, the agency’s secretary-general, who oversees its day-to-day operations, issued a statement pleading with them to let him know how the president is doing. Where is the statement urging member states to suspend China from Interpol?
All of this reflects a deeper problem with Interpol. Nearly 80 percent of Interpol’s annual operating budget of about $80 million comes from Western democracies, but authoritarian states have begun to corrupt the organization. Many countries still rely on Interpol to share information on real criminals. But a handful of bad actors have abused the system to target their political foes. As Ted Bromund, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation who focuses on Interpol, puts it, “The problem with the Interpol system is that a lot of nations are not like us and we pretend that they are.”
The pioneer in this regard is Russia. In the last 10 years, just as Western law enforcement agencies began focusing on the financial crimes of Russian oligarchs, the Kremlin began requesting red notices, or requests for arrest and extradition, for its political opponents. Hedge fund manager William Browder is the highest-profile victim of this kind of abuse.
Other rogue states have followed Russia’s lead. Iran has issued red notices for dissidents. Turkey has gotten Interpol to issue a red notice to arrest a Turkish writer who had been critical of the government. China has abused the system, issuing a red notice in 2017 for the head of the World Uighur Congress. The Chinese Uighurs are treated as second-class citizens in western China.
In most of these cases, the Interpol system has worked and the red notices were revoked. Last year, Interpol instituted new reforms to make these abuses harder. But authoritarians have also adjusted, making use of “diffusion notices,” which are communicated directly to national law enforcement authorities and do not have to go through Interpol’s red-notice system.
In the case of Meng Hongwei, a Chinese national who became president of Interpol in 2016, there are two possibilities: Either China nominated a corrupt man to be president of a major international law enforcement agency; or China is detaining an innocent man. Whichever way you interpret it, says Bruno Min, a senior policy adviser at Fair Trials, a UK-based human-rights group, “It shows disrespect to Interpol.” China has ignored Interpol’s rules before, he says, “and now they are going even further.”
Until now, the Western nations of Interpol have been loath to suspend any country’s membership. This practice has to stop. If China doesn’t face consequences for what it has done, then Interpol will be setting the conditions for its own irrelevance. What good is an international law enforcement system that lets rogues act like cops?
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. -- Ed.