16/02/2012 06:19 GMT | Updated 16/04/2012 06:12 BST

Executing Arrest Warrants: Interpol, the UN and the Death Penalty

Last Friday, Malaysian Police confirmed the arrest of Hamza Kashgari, a journalist wanted by Saudi Arabia for insulting the Prophet Mohamed on Twitter. The arrest reportedly came after Interpol issued a 'Red Notice' on the request of Saudi Arabia (an 'international alert allowing police in member countries to share critical crime-related information'). Kashgari has since been returned to the country where he faces the death penalty.

Interpol denied involvement, a spokesperson stating said: 'The assertion that Saudi Arabia used Interpol's system in this case is wholly misleading and erroneous.'

That may be true but the Kashgari case serves as a window into a far bigger legal and moral problem for Interpol.

According to the agency, 'In the case of Red Notices, the persons concerned are wanted by national jurisdictions and the notices requested are based on an arrest warrant or court decision. Interpol's role is to assist the national police forces in identifying and locating these persons with a view to their arrest and extradition'

6,344 Red Notices were issued in 2010.

But Interpol cannot do this in a legal or moral vacuum. According to its own constitution, its foundational legal document, one of Interpol's aims is 'To ensure and promote the widest possible mutual assistance between all criminal police authorities within the limits of the laws existing in the different countries and in the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights'.

Article 3 of the constitution is Interpol's neutrality clause, barring action in religious cases, so a case like that of Kashgari would be clear cut. Interpol should not act. But what about actual crimes that carry the death penalty in many countries in contravention of international law, such as economic crimes and drug offences? What is Interpol's position on assisting the capture and extradition of people who will face death for such crimes?

Searching current Red Notices on Interpol's website, 13 have been issued for people wanted in China for corruption, for example, which can carry a death sentence (among other economic crimes).

On a larger scale, up to a thousand people are likely put to death every year for drug offences. There are 160 Red Notices issued for 'drugs', with people wanted by Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, China, Viet Nam, Iran and other states that retain the death penalty for drug offences.

There are eight notices for people wanted by Saudi Arabia for drug offences. Since 2007, Saudia Arabia has executed at least 65 people for drugs. China and Viet Nam are secretive about their executions, but both are known to be prolific.

Aside from international notices there is training, capacity building and operations. One of the agency's most prominent current drugs programmes is 'Operation Ice Trail', intended to 'target organized crime groups trafficking huge quantities of methamphetamine by courier and/or cargo shipment from Iran via Turkey to destination countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific'. In other words, drugs originating in a death penalty state and destined for a region replete with them.

Iran executed around 590 people for drugs in 2010, and well over 10,000 since 1979. In January, Interpol hosted the third operational working group meeting on Operation Ice Trail in Tehran, attended by police forces from eleven countries.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) was also represented, and it is an agency that has recently also been criticised for assisting death penalty states in capturing drug suspects. UNODC assistance to Iran, China and elsewhere has led to prosecutions and executions. Such programmes are ongoing despite concerns being raised by human rights groups.

The two agencies are strikingly similar. Both are international agencies involved heavily in drug enforcement. Both work with countries with extremely poor human rights records. Both have human rights as core values, at least on paper.

The answers are also similar. Both need clear, developed, and published human rights frameworks to guide their actions. They need transparent systems of human rights risk and impact assessment to implement those guidelines and against which they can be held to account. This applies to technical assistance, capacity building, material assistance, and, of course, if and when Interpol issues Red Notices.

Recently, for example, the Thai Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubumrung has announced plans to cut appeal processes for those on death row for drug offences in Thailand, aiming to expedite executions. There are over 300 people on death row for drugs in Thailand, including almost seventy women and a lot of foreign nationals, meaning that Mr Chalerm is proposing a lot of killing in the near future, it seems.

How should this affect Interpol's decision making?

As a first step, clear, public, red lines for when assistance cannot be provided must be developed by both agencies. Syria is an Interpol member. Would Interpol now issue a Red Notice on request from the Assad regime, for any crime?

The answer to that should be clearer than it is.

Interpol may not have been involved in Hamza Kashgari's capture. But the process of Red Notices for warrants that may result in executions raises a range of questions that must be answered by Interpol, as well as other international drug enforcement agencies such as UNODC and their donors (especially those that have abolished the death penalty).

We cannot have international policing without human rights oversight.