Before the detention of refugee Australian footballer Hakeem-al-Araibi in Thailand, not many Australians would have been aware of Interpol’s “Red Notice” system.
There are actually eight levels of Interpol Notice, seven of them colour coded – Red, Blue, Green, Yellow, Black, Orange and Purple; the remaining one is a Special Notice issued at the request of the UN Security Council.
The Notice system was established in 1946, with the Special Notice added in 2005 to target the assets, travel and arms supply of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Notices circulated by Interpol have a variety of purposes – they may concern persons wanted for serious crimes, missing persons, unidentified bodies, prison escapees, and advice of criminals’ modus operandi.
There is also a less formal “diffusion” process whereby Interpol can make a request for the arrest or location of a person, or request additional information to assist in an investigation.
Police in one of Interpol’s 194 member countries may provide information on a case and request a Notice via their “National Central Bureau”. After a compliance check has been completed, the Interpol General Secretariat publishes the Notice to member-states
A Red Notice is effectively a request to locate and provisionally arrest an individual pending extradition, usually based on requests made by member-states or authorised entities - such as the UN or International Criminal Court.
Interpol cannot compel any member-state to arrest the subject of a Red Notice. Each member country decides for itself what legal value to give a Red Notice within its jurisdiction.
When a person subject to a Red Notice travels to another member-state, that state is alerted to the fact. This can be useful sometimes for passing the buck to another jurisdiction – persons wanted for war crimes being a case in point.
A Red Notice not actioned in Australia might well be actioned if the wanted person travels to a country that has close relations with the member-state that requested the Notice. This was what happened to Araibi in Thailand.
Bahrain and Thailand have a strong economic relationship and, more importantly, the Thai and Bahrain royal families reportedly have close ties. Therefore, once Araibi had been arrested on behalf of a Bahrain-requested Red Notice, no-one - including the Prime Minister - was prepared to cross King Vajiralongkorn, so the only way to get Araibi released was to get Bahrain to terminate the extradition process.
This does not seem to have been well understood in Australia, with various appeals to Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha who would have been unable to act against the interests of the monarch and powerful Thai business interests.
Bahrain only backed off in Araibi’s case after Craig Foster and others orchestrated mounting pressure on the Asian Football Confederation and FIFA. (Bahrain’s Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, a member of the House of Khalifa - the royal family of Bahrain, is the AFC President and a FIFA Vice-President.)
Bahrain, like Saudi Arabia, is ruled by a Sunni autocratic monarchy that would not survive any democratic process. It has used the Interpol Notice system to intimidate and attempt to extradite persons it perceives to be external threats to the regime.
Bahrain alleged that in 2012, Araibi was involved in vandalising a police station (during a pro-democracy uprising linked to the Arab Spring). From a timing point of view, he could have been, but the information implicating him was derived from torture, so would not be admissible in any legitimate court process.
It seems more likely that Bahrain’s Red Notice request was motivated by Araibi’s later external criticism of the regime.
There seems to be little Western support for legal due process in Bahrain or the democratic aspirations of its majority Shiite population, who are portrayed by the regime as puppets of Iran.
Bahrain has been able to get away with internal repression and dubious arrest warrants because of its international associations.
It is a former British protectorate in which the UK has substantial financial interests. That is probably why London has been reluctant to get involved in numerous Bahrain human rights issues.
Like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain is also strategically important to the Western alliance. US Naval Support Activity Bahrain is an important US Navy base with Headquarters Commander US Naval Forces Central Command, the US Fifth Fleet, and around 6,000 US military personnel located there. Bahrain also provides port access to Australian naval ships.
The Gulf States have undue influence in Interpol because they are generous donors to the organisation. For example, in 2017 the UAE donated A$76 million to the Interpol Foundation. (Interpol’s annual budget is A$180 million.)
Clearly there needs to be a more rigorous process for the issuance of Interpol Red Notices. A notice should not be published by Interpol if it is politically, militarily, religiously or racially motivated - in fact, doing so violates Interpol’s constitution.
In future, Australia should be more proactive in Interpol when it comes to Red Notices affecting Australian residents and - when not prepared to act on a Red Notice ourselves – we should warn affected Australian travellers they could face arrest in some destinations.
Clive Williams is a visiting professor at the ANU’s Centre for Military and Security Law and an adjunct professor at ADFA.