If the intentional events of the past year were scripted as a Bond film, the critics would decide that 007 had stretched credibility too far. An ex-Russian spy poisoned in a quiet English cathedral town; a US government outflanked by North Korea on nuclear weapons; a Saudi critic murdered by Saudi officials in an Istanbul consulate.
But one recent story goes even further into international thriller territory. It's a chilling tale that has received a fraction of the coverage granted to any of these other big 2018 stories: the disappearance of Meng Hongwei.
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Meng was the president of the International Criminal Police Organization, known as Interpol, the planet's cross-border law enforcement cooperation body. In late September, he quietly disappeared in China. There hasn't been much of a public fuss. As the age of liberal values ebbs away, have global norms on human rights been so weakened that even international policemen are no longer safe from state-sponsored kidnap?
Meng came of age in the murky world of Chinese politics. As China's nominee for the Interpol job in 2016, he ran the organization while retaining his long-term title as China's vice-minister for public security. So when he mysteriously dropped out of contact with his wife during a recent solo visit to his homeland, there were plenty who shrugged. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
In 21st century spy-movie style, his last message to his wife, who he left behind in Paris, was a single knife emoji -- their shared code for danger. China eventually admitted it had arrested Meng on undefined corruption charges, making him the latest target of a nationwide anti-corruption drive that has swept up many who have fallen foul of the prevailing political winds.
But whatever the messy nature of internal Chinese politics, it remains astonishing that the president of the world's law-keeping organization has been allowed to disappear in a manner completely in breach of any concept of natural law. After two weeks, during which Meng's wife publicly complained that she was not sure if her husband was alive or dead, China admitted it was holding her husband. And this appears to have put an end to the story, rather than fueled it. Interpol meekly accepted a letter of resignation purportedly sent from Meng in detention. According to some reports, the letter did not even contain his signature.
On Wednesday, delegates from Interpol's 194 member countries met to choose Meng's successor. After a last-ditch intervention by Britain and the United States, the organization swerved away from electing a Russian closely linked to the Kremlin, Alexander Prokopchuk, who is widely accused of using Interpol's international arrest warrant scheme to attempt extraditions of Putin's critics abroad.
Like many international organizations, Interpol claims to uphold values that transcend partisan politics, and like many international organizations, it is largely dominated by the maneuvering of realpolitik. Already, Interpol has failed to defend its own president from one authoritarian nation. Now, it has avoided handing over control to another, electing instead the South Korean Kim Jong Yang, who has held the reins since Meng's departure. In the end, Interpol made the right choice, but this does not erase its seeming dismissal of Meng's treatment.
Some critics of Interpol claim the organization went rotten a long time ago. The organization Fair Trials International has raised particular concerns about the rise of so-called "diffusion notices," international arrest warrants originally designed with fewer legal safeguards than the famous "red notice."
All red notices undergo checks for political pressure at the Interpol headquarters in Lyon, France, before they're implemented; diffusion notices skip this checking stage, supposedly saving time so foreign police agencies can temporarily detain individuals while crimes are still in commission. This can serve as a way to harass and intimidate dissidents abroad. And these cases are on the rise: In 2015, Interpol issued 19,338 diffusion notices, now that number has risen to 50,530 in the last year.
This has real consequences for US citizens in the world. The activist and investor Bill Browder is an American-born British citizen who has campaigned against Russian corruption since his auditor, Sergei Magnitsky, was beaten to death in a Russian jail for attempting to expose corruption. And Russia has made seven requests to have Browder arrested while traveling outside the United States. (Russia has recently taken to accusing Browder of the killing, although it was once so unconcerned with seeking justice for Magnitsky that it put him on trial for tax evasion after his death. He was posthumously found guilty.)
In a London press conference on Tuesday with the exiled Putin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Browder warned that should Prokopchuk be elected, he'd be even less able to travel freely to coordinate his work against Putin, lest he be sent to Russia under the guise of Interpol to be "tortured and killed" like his friend before him. Browder and Khodorkovsky have launched a legal attempt to have Russia suspended from Interpol, which will likely fail, but may raise further public questions about the organization's attitude toward international political dissidents.
Prokopchuk's inability to seize control of Interpol may arrest Western fears about the viability of Interpol. Some British MPs seemed to urge the UK and its allies to consider pulling out of the organization altogether if Putin's man was elected.
But regardless of the positive step Interpol took in its leadership selection, the mysterious disappearance of Meng remains deeply concerning. The organization must do something to assert its political autonomy in the face of the world's most powerful states.
Ronald Noble, the American who served as Interpol's secretary general from 2000 to 2014, has suggested the organization should have refused to accept Meng Hongwei's "potentially involuntary" resignation, presumably continuing to honor him in absentia.
But when it comes to tackling the abuse of diffusion notices, the United States' own position has been heavily undermined by President Trump's friendship with Vladimir Putin, particularly after this summer's Helsinki summit, when the President seemed to entertain the idea of allowing Putin's agents to interrogate Browder. When the US President publicly mulls the idea of handing citizens over to Russia without due cause, it's hard for US officials to complain when Interpol proposes to do just that.
Wednesday's Interpol vote may not have been the biggest news in the United States, but it has real consequences for US citizens. This was the latest test in how far international norms on human rights still make an impact in global diplomacy -- and Interpol passed, just at the last minute. Yet the West's surprise ability to stand up to Russian Interpol masks its weakness in the face of another global giant.
If the West is prepared to confront Putin in the Cold War of quango bureaucracy, why can't it confront China?
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