Too often we imagine institutions have a political identity. Journalists write about America’s democratic institutions without realizing these same institutions can become coopted into tools of authoritarianism. Ancient Rome did not abolish its Senate as it transitioned from a Republic into an Empire. Rather the roles of the institutions become redefined. Plenty of elections occur in nondemocratic political systems, but their value is different than in a democracy. They do not intend to select leaders but to legitimize the current leadership.
Edward Lemon writes in the recent Journal of Democracy an article called “Weaponizing Interpol.” He explains how authoritarian nations manipulate this institution to become a threat to political dissidents. They use Interpol to legitimize their claims using Red Notices. Of course, a Red Notice is filed by the country of origin. Interpol does not label anyone as a criminal. They simply help other countries communicate their claims. Nonetheless, it becomes a source of legitimization of false claims.
Globalization has extended the reach of authoritarianism. Dana Moss writes on the transnational repression of the Arab diaspora. Libyans and Syrians were hesitant to protest the regimes of their home countries. Many felt their behavior in the United States, or the United Kingdom affected the lives of their families. Most Libyans did not speak out about Gaddafi until their families were in the streets themselves. It amazed me to realize how the foreign embassy directly pressured its citizens who lived in free countries. A Syrian in the United States gives an account where the Syrian embassy contacted them to join their protest to support Assad. The embassy threatened her by saying, “if you don’t join us, that means you are against us.” Moss uncovers an uncomfortable reality. Foreign nationals in free countries are haunted by their countries of origin. It is no longer possible to simply leave a repressive government. It follows them.
Interpol becomes an authoritarian institution when it is used by authoritarians. It restricts freedom of movement and their livelihood. Because the organization lacks transparency, many do not realize they are in Interpol’s database. It is true political crimes are supposed to remain outside the jurisdiction of Interpol. Yet political dissidents are rarely wanted for political activity. The country of origin creates claims of terrorism. It is possible to challenge a Red Notice, but it may take time before it is clear one exists.
Institutions are easily manipulated. Its architects use written rules to direct behavior, but over time institutions develop their own social norms. An international institution composed of liberal democracies will take on the practices based in the rule of law and democracy. But authoritarian regimes will adopt their own norms into institutions where they are included. It may be counterproductive to keep important nations like China out of international institutions, but it is possible to keep these institutions weak so they are less vulnerable to manipulation.
jmk, carmel, indiana, firstname.lastname@example.org