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NEWS

INTERPOL announces new asylum policy at Council of Europe meeting

petrOn 19 May in Yerevan, Armenia, INTERPOL announced a new policy relating to recognised refugees, responding to key calls for reform led by Fair Trials. The announcement, made at a hearing of the Legal Affairs & Human Rights Committee (AS/Jur) of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), is a potentially important development which – provided it is published and its content appears satisfactory – should be welcomed as a step forward in tackling abuses of INTERPOL.
A key reform issue
Fair Trials has long underlined the need for better protection of refugees in the INTERPOL system. Key cases like those of Vicdan Özerdem (a refugee Turkish journalist arrested in Croatia) or Petr Silaev (a Russian anti-fascist refugee arrested in Spain for ‘hooliganism’) led to serious concern. Given the cornerstone status of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, INTERPOL’s failure to offer greater protection to refugees placed it at odds with its commitment to international law.
A consensus emerged that reform was needed. After the publication of Fair Trials’ 2013 "Strengthening INTERPOL" calling for reform on this point, parliamentarians got involved, first in the EU and then in PACE, the parliamentary body of the 47-country bloc. Asylum specialists echoed the call: The Centre for Peace Studies (CMS) in Zagreb recently issued recommendations urging INTERPOL to ensure better protection of refugees. Fair Trials also discussed the matter with INTERPOL, during meetings in September 2013 and March 2015. Pressure grew on INTERPOL when PACE revisited the issue, mandating AS/Jur to produce a report under rapporteur Mr Bernd Fabritius (Germany, EPP).
Hence, the hearing on 19 May. MPs from across Europe convened to hear from the Assistant Director of INTERPOL’s Office of Legal Affairs, Yaron Gottlieb, who spoke alongside Fair Trials’ Legal & Policy Officer, Alex Tinsley, and Anna Koj, Head of the EU Office of the Open Dialog Foundation. New cases of abuse were presented and policy ideas exchanged, providing food for thought for the Rapporteur Mr Fabritius. But a key detail was INTERPOL’s confirmation of a policy disclosed by a statement of the Prosecutor General of Georgia earlier this year, suggesting a possible departure from INTERPOL’s practice of adding a note to the alert to reflect the asylum grant, rather than deleting it.
The new asylum policy – as far as we know
We need written confirmation of the policy, but this is what we learned: INTERPOL has notified the policy to the National Central Bureaus, the national police contact points for INTERPOL, but has not disseminated it further. In substance, the policy is that INTERPOL will remove a Red Notice if it can verify that the person has been recognised as refugee under the 1951 Convention. It does not matter whether the criminal prosecution in question was the ground for the asylum or not; the grant of asylum suffices. INTERPOL will not reveal to the country behind the Red Notice which country granted asylum, to address confidentiality concerns. There are, however, important caveats: (A) INTERPOL must be able to verify the asylum grant, which asylum-granting countries may be slow to do for confidentiality reasons, and (B) the country issuing the Red Notice can revert to INTERPOL with further material asking it to revisit the decision.
Fair Trials is, of course, keen to welcome the new policy as a real step forward in line with a key recommendation in Strengthening INTERPOL. Again, however, some important caveats: (A) the policy is worth little if not made public and treated as binding, enabling the average refugee to know about it and make use of it, and further thought is needed on how to ensure refugees unaware of there being an alert against them can benefit from the policy (B) the failure of countries to confirm asylum grants must be addressed through dialogue with national authorities and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to ensure the policy is not reduced to a theory; and  (C) INTERPOL will need to extend the policy to cover refusals of extradition based on norms like Article 3(b) of the United Nations Model Treaty on Extradition, versions of which exist in many treaties; like the 1951 Convention, these provisions aim to protect individuals from persecution, but refusals on this ground will not be treated the same way, since extradition refusals are dealt with specifically in INTERPOL’s General Assembly resolution AG-53-RES-7, which foresees a note being placed on the file instead of the removal of the alert.
More of the same needed
This step forward, if verified, must be followed by more. Asylum under the 1951 Convention is only one aspect of the problem, and there are many more: guidance is needed on how INTERPOL approaches other forms of international protection and key human rights norms like the prohibition on torture, and improvements are needed to the Commission for the Control of Files (CCF), the body refugees (and everyone else) turn to when they need to challenge an INTERPOL alert. This avenue has, to quote a member of the European Parliament, been ‘totally inadequate’ and its choice to meet for twelve days instead of six per year, while welcome, is not a revolution.
Luckily, INTERPOL is currently in listening mode. It has convened a Working Group to study the question of information processing through its channels, at all levels, including before the CCF. Civil society organisations like Fair Trials and CMS have been invited to attend a meeting of the body, and INTERPOL will get advice from the new CCF Chair Ms Nina Vajic, a former European Court of Human Rights judge, and soon the AS/Jur report of Mr Fabritius. By late 2016, progress may be in sight.

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