In this month’s cover article in The Atlantic, historian and journalist Anne Applebaum describes what she calls “Autocracy, Inc,” an alliance of modern autocrats across the political spectrum who are motivated primarily by preserving and enhancing their power and wealth. They also offer cross-border support to one another when it is in their individual interests.
As if to prove the thesis of Applebaum’s article, on Nov. 25, 2021 the International Police Criminal Organization, popularly known as INTERPOL, elected Emirati Ministry of the Interior (MOI) General Ahmed Naser al-Raisi as its new president. The media has widely reported General al-Raisi’s involvement in human rights abuses and the UAE’s role in past exploitation of INTERPOL. Red notices are basically worldwide wanted posters, whereby the requesting country asks police authorities in other countries to locate and provisionally arrest a person pending extradition or other legal action via a notice in an INTERPOL database. Authoritarian countries are increasingly using them to go after political dissidents despite INTERPOL rules against this.
Equally important, however, is an issue that has not been as widely publicized: That a country considered an especially permissive location for the facilitation of organized crime, corruption, and illicit finance now sits atop the world’s leading global law enforcement agency. It is as if the fox were put in charge of guarding the henhouse.
ELECTING A FOX
General al-Raisi has a particularly checkered past. As the inspector general of the Emirati MOI, he plays a key role in everything from the country’s prisons to its prosecutions of illicit finance and organized crime. General al-Raisi’ MOI has been accused of abuse of INTERPOL’s Red Notices, torture, and oppressive surveillance. He is also personally the target of lawsuits over human rights abuses filed in the UK, Sweden, Norway, and France (where INTERPOL is headquartered). Nonetheless, General al-Raisi was elected to his four-year term after three rounds of voting, receiving 69% of the vote; because each country’s vote is secret, it is unclear which countries voted for al-Raisi or why.
There’s an important issue not being publicized: That a country considered an especially permissive location for the facilitation of organized crime, corruption, and illicit finance now sits atop the world’s leading global law enforcement agency.
Given the UAE’s authoritarian reputation, it had to work hard to get its candidate elected to what is supposed to be a part-time, largely ceremonial post. Not only did General al-Raisi travel to various INTERPOL member countries to gain support, but in recent years, the UAE has become a leading financial donor to INTERPOL and its associated foundation. For example, the UAE donated $54 million to an INTERPOL’s foundation in 2017, though it’s required contribution that year was only $325,000. INTERPOL’s entire budget this year is about $165 million. Though UAE lowered its donations recently, it still provided about 7% of the organization’s total budget in 2019. This has led former UK Director of Public Prosecutions Sir David Calvert-Smith to opine in an April 2021 report that there is “coherent evidence that the UAE is seeking to influence INTERPOL.”
The irony of having a senior Emirati MOI leader in charge of INTERPOL has not been lost on anti-crime advocates. Last year, I co-led a project by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to better understand why the Emirati city of Dubai in particular had become both a way station and destination for dirty money and associated criminal activities. The report noted that corrupt and criminal actors from around the world operate through or from Dubai, with Afghan warlords, Russian mobsters, Nigerian kleptocrats, European money launderers, Iran sanctions-busters, and East Africa gold smugglers. Furthermore, Emirati regulators, officials, and law enforcement agents are aware of how Dubai is being used as a conduit for illicit finance transactions. This is a feature, not a bug, of Dubai’s political economy. Retired FBI special agent Karen Greenaway notes:
“…the UAE has a strong track record on regional and international coordination related to terrorism financing and a decent record related to narcotics trafficking and human trafficking. However, the crimes that require more significant cooperation — for example, on transnational organized crime groups operating from the former Soviet Union, international asset recovery, and anti-money-laundering — do not appear to be priorities for the MOI.”
The Financial Action Task Force, the international body that sets and assesses international counterterrorism finance and anti-money laundering criteria, echoes these concerns. It’s 2020 evaluation of the UAE states that even though the UAE is a major international banking center, the country only prosecuted 50 individuals for money laundering (and convicted 33) between 2013 and 2018. In August 2020, the venerable Economist magazine piled in. In an article about Dubai, it noted that:
“Of all the big global financial centres, it [Dubai] is the shadiest—not only a haven for clean money seeking investments or fleeing turmoil elsewhere, but also for the dirty stuff. It is used by kleptocrats, money-launderers, arms-smugglers, sanctions-busters, and other criminals.”
This is, however, hardly the first time the international community has been concerned about authoritarian or criminal capture of INTERPOL. The president of INTERPOL from 2002 to 2008, Jackie Selebi, was forced to resign and later convicted of taking bribes from a drug kingpin. Meng Hongwei, who was elected to the presidency in 2016, was secretly detained and accused of taking bribes by Chinese officials in 2018 and was sentenced to 13 years in prison by a Chinese court. His wife claims he was purged for advocating political reforms in China, while others said he was arrested for not approving the Red Notices that China wanted. One of the leading candidates to replace Meng, Aleksandr V. Prokopchuk, a senior official in the Russian Ministry of Interior, had been part of the notorious abuses of INTERPOL Red Notices by the Russian Federation. Western governments, including the US, breathed a sigh of relief when his South Korean opponent won instead.
WHY THIS MATTERS
The INTERPOL president role is largely ceremonial, but it is an important post nonetheless. INTERPOL’s president does not handle day-to-day management of the organization; that’s the job of the General Secretariat. However, the INTERPOL president chairs the organization’s three annual meetings of its executive committee, which oversees the work of the General Secretariat. During Meng’s short tenure, he treated the INTERPOL presidency as a full time job, brought four full-time Chinese aides with him, and tried to increase the president’s power over day-to-day policies. He failed, but it is possible that General al-Raisi could try to copy Meng’s plan.
It also reinforces fears of the long arm of authoritarian regimes. A country renowned for abusing Red Notices, extraterritorial renditions, human rights abuses, and for running a notorious surveillance state now sits atop the organization and its 19 databases. These act as a worldwide clearing house for the aforementioned Red Notices plus fingerprints, DNA, facial recognition, and travel document information submitted by member governments, amongst a slew of other information.
Finally, if, as Applebaum contends, part of what keeps “Autocracy, Inc.” profitable and powerful is autocrats’ willingness to use criminality to keep themselves and their co-conspirators in power, then what better advantage than for one of their own to sit at the very top of the global law enforcement infrastructure? The fact that blood-soaked narco-state Syria was allowed to rejoin INTERPOL’s communications networks in October does not ease anti-crime advocates’ concerns.
The US has become concerned enough about INTERPOL that it is on the brink of passing bipartisan legislation. The National Defense Authorization Act that was agreed to by the House and Senate on Dec. 7, 2021 (but not yet passed into law) includes the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention Act. This requires the US government to use its “voice, vote, and influence” to promote reforms within INTERPOL plus additional reporting to Congress and the American people on INTERPOL abuses. While this is an important step, the history of the INTERPOL presidency demonstrates how autocracies and kleptocracies will keep trying to undermine global governing institutions.
When a country’s institutions are run by politicians acting with criminal motives, these states are referred to as “criminally captured.” Political scientists and economists have not yet come up with a term for what happens when intergovernmental organizations are similarly captured. It says a lot about the nature of the world today that just such a term may be becoming necessary.
Jodi Vittori is a nonresident scholar in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace. She is an expert on the linkages of corruption, state fragility, illicit finance, and US national security.