What Role Does Interpol Play in our World?

Interpol is a name known by many but its role on the international scene is often unclear. With narratives of terrorist and criminal activities overwhelming the media, as the largest international police organisation Interpol is never short of issues to tackle. I had the chance to interview an analyst at the Interpol General Secretariat, located in Lyon, France, who had worked for the agency for almost thirteen years and thus had fascinating insights into the work of organisation.

Image courtesy of Delorian, © 2007, public domain

Image courtesy of Delorian, © 2007, public domain

As stated on the organization’s website, Interpol’s role is ‘to enable police around the world to work together to make the world a safer place’. It contains 190 members and relies on the cooperation of national police forces. The Interpol analyst described it as ‘an organization that attempts to work with its member countries to exchange law enforcement information and assist police as necessary and possible, within the mandate and agreements of INTERPOL’.  He added that the specificity of the organization is that it works without a political agenda and remains objective towards political issues while focusing on law enforcement as its main goal. It has many offices around the world, the latest having been established in Singapore and specialising in cyber-crime.

Interpol does not work unitarily on issues, as it is a highly cooperative entity, especially with the United Nations and the European Union. For instance, a delegation of Interpol is present in New York to advise the Security Council and other committees on security issues and to offer assistance. It also has many cooperation agreements with legal organisations such as the International Criminal Court and specialized tribunals. Although Interpol abides by international law, it is not a ‘field’ law enforcement agency and its power is limited to the cooperation of national police forces. It is an advisory and intelligence gathering organisation that also meets with world organisations such as the World Health Organisation and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

For many international relations students, working as an intelligence analyst within Interpol might be a dream. Despite its selectiveness, there are two ways to work at Interpol. Half of the staff is recruited from national police forces, whilst the other half has a more academic background such as international relations/political science majors, or computer scientists. ‘As an analyst, I conduct research, search through police data submitted by member countries, enter data into databases, and ultimately write analyses about crimes’, the Interpol agent explained.  The work of an analyst is varied and, although some have more specified field, one could be working on terror threats in the morning and dealing with an armed robbery or human trafficking in the afternoon. Interpol commonly utilises databases to share intelligence data. Analysts write analytical reports in the aim of assisting law enforcement agencies. The analyst stated that Interpol provides an agreeable international environment where their staffs have quasi-diplomatic status. He also shared with fondness the perks of traveling, as well as the real life application of international relations being extremely rewarding.

The issue of membership within Interpol is connected to wealth discrepancy between countries. Interpol specialises in different fields and has varying resources, according to the analyst. ‘Interpol’s priorities could be measured by the number of people assigned to a unit, the budget of the crime area, the number of arrests in the area INTERPOL facilitates, or the high-level attention paid to it in terms of summits and major meetings’ he says convincingly. Interpol effectively has to divide a budget and give more attention and resources to some issues. Terrorism has gained a high level of attention internationally in the past decade and Interpol is highly involved in counter-terrorist strategies, with summits and meetings organised to tackle the issue.

Money is thus a limiting aspect of the agency, which limits conferences and personnel, as well as resources given to different departments. Ironically enough, the analyst stated that information is also a second issue at Interpol where this is simultaneously too much of it and not enough of it, especially on individualities and specific groups. He adds ‘for example, INTERPOL may have too much information about drug traffickers to process, but not enough information about a specific terror attack to be of assistance.’

Despite monetary limitations, its budget of 60 million euros annually allows for the organization’s effectiveness in the field of international security. ‘Since we work closely with member countries and other international organizations, it is always difficult to ascertain with certainty to what extent any accomplishment is uniquely INTERPOL’s, but it is clear that there is a need for a single, global police organization and that INTERPOL uniquely fills this requirement’, concludes the analyst. The real ambiguity of the organization lies in its non-political biased and its non-involvement in politics. Indeed, to claim that war crimes or terrorism exist as apolitical issues would be erroneous. Does Interpol really have no political agenda? With the Secretary General and the President of the organisation being two powerful figures setting the organisation’s agenda, we would argue that it is impossible for the agency to remain unbiased. However, because it relies solely on their members’ cooperation, Interpol is also limited in actions. It is thus more of an intelligence sharing and gathering tool, rather than an enforcement agency.