George Thomas Kurian. World Encyclopedia of Police Forces and Correctional Systems. 2nd Edition, Volume 1, Gale, 2006.

Interpol is the world’s largest police organization, established for mutual assistance in the detection and deterrence of international crime. Its aim is to facilitate cooperation among the police forces of member countries, despite differences of language, culture, and criminal justice systems.

Legal Status

Interpol is founded on a constitution that was not submitted for diplomatic signature or ratification by governments. Nevertheless, immediately after its formation, countries began applying for membership, appointing delegates, allocating funds for dues, and complying with the organization’s rules and regulations. The League of Nations gave Interpol official recognition by entrusting it with the administration of the 1929 Convention on the Suppression of Counterfeiting Currency. Over the years, many international organizations have become affiliated with Interpol, and the United Nations Economic and Social Council granted it official status as an intergovernmental agency in 1971.

Because member governments have not delegated to it any specific powers or authority, Interpol must function within the limits of the laws of each member country, as well as within the provisions of its own constitution. This explains why Interpol itself has no powers of arrest or search and seizure, nor the authority to conduct criminal investigations. These powers are exercised by the police of member states.


The organization’s aims are summarized in Article 2 of its constitution: (1) “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;” and (2) “To establish and develop all institutions likely to contribute effectively to the prevention and suppression of ordinary law crimes.” Article 3 of the Interpol constitution states: “It is strictly forbidden for the organization to undertake any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character.” Therefore, in its function of facilitating cooperation among member states, Interpol deals exclusively with “ordinary” law crimes. The term ordinary law is used rather than common law because common law has a specific legal significance in certain judicial systems.

Basic Principles

The organization conducts its activities on the basis of several fundamental principles:

  1. Respect for national sovereignty.
  2. Involvement with “ordinary” law crimes only (within the limits of Article 3).
  3. Universality (cooperation among member states regardless of geographic or linguistic impediments).
  4. Equality (all member states are provided with the same services and have the same rights, irrespective of their financial contributions to the organization).
  5. Cooperation with other agencies involved in combating criminal offenses.
  6. Flexibility of working methods (ensuring regularity and continuity while keeping formalities to a minimum and taking into account the wide variety of structures and situations in different countries).

Respecting these principles means that international police cooperation depends on coordinated action on the part of member states’ police forces, which supply or request information or services through Interpol.

Interpol’s Origins

One of the most striking features of crime in the twenty-first century is its international nature. Criminals have become increasingly mobile as restrictions on international travel have gradually been lifted and means of communication and transport have improved. At the same time, economic and social activities have expanded and increased in complexity at both national and international levels. This phenomenon has provided offenders with significantly extended opportunities for their illicit activities.

While these factors make it easier for criminals to offend, they hinder the police, whose actions are subject to various legitimate constraints (such as territorial limitations on jurisdiction, respect for the law, and limited resources). Consequently, society has become more vulnerable to criminal activities, even though it may enjoy a higher standard of living.

Although “international crime” has never been clearly defined in legal terms, the offenses covered by this phrase are recognizable in practice, either because they are the subject of international conventions (such as the 1929 Convention on the Suppression of Counterfeiting Currency, the 1949 Convention for the Suppression of Traffic in Persons and Exploitation of Prostitution of Others, the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances), or because of other international aspects of a purely circumstantial nature. Such aspects may include the fact that an offense was prepared and carried out in more than one country, or the revelation that a single offender has committed a number of crimes in different countries, has absconded to another country, or transferred the proceeds of his or her offense to another country. In addition, offenders, victims, or witnesses may not be resident in the country where the offense was committed.

When international offenses such as those described above are committed, the police and judicial authorities in the countries concerned need to exchange information rapidly to obtain evidence and to identify, locate, and arrest offenders with a view to extradition. The need for international cooperation in these circumstances first made itself felt at the beginning of the twentieth century and gradually became more pressing. This led to the establishment of Interpol as an instrument of international police cooperation.

In 1914 the first International Criminal Police Congress was held in Monaco. Legal experts and police officers from fourteen countries met to discuss the possibility of establishing an international criminal records office and of harmonizing extradition procedures. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 prevented further progress until 1923, when the second International Criminal Police Congress met in Vienna to continue the work begun in Monaco. The congress set up the International Criminal Police Commission (ICPC), with its official headquarters in Vienna and its own statutes. The ICPC was essentially European in character, and it operated until the outbreak of World War II in 1939.

The third “new start” for international police cooperation took place in 1946, when a conference was held in Brussels, Belgium, with the intention of re-creating an effective organization for international police cooperation in the aftermath of World War II.

With the growth in membership from 50 countries in 1955, to 100 in 1967, and 184 in 2005, Interpol’s worldwide mission has become more apparent. Article 4 of the Interpol constitution states: “Any country may delegate as a member to the organization any official police body whose functions come within the framework of activities of the organization.” It is therefore the country that belongs to the organization, not the individual police agency. If a country wishes to join Interpol, an appropriate governmental department, usually the ministry responsible for the police or in some cases the ministry for foreign affairs, submits an application for membership to the General Secretariat, which must then be approved by Interpol’s General Assembly.

Brief History of the Organization

In 1914, at the invitation of Prince Albert I of Monaco (1848-1922), lawyers and police officials from twenty-three nations and territories met in Monaco at the first International Criminal Police Congress. They discussed improvements in arrest procedures, perfection of identification techniques, establishment of central international criminal records, and unification of extradition proceedings. The meeting was so successful that the delegates agreed to meet in Bucharest, Romania, in 1916, but World War I erupted, so the meeting never took place. In 1919 Colonel M. C. van Houten of the Royal Netherlands Police unsuccessfully tried to convene a conference on police cooperation.

In 1923 Johann Schober, president of the Vienna Police, convened the second International Criminal Police Congress in Vienna. The meeting was attended by representatives from nineteen countries. The delegates agreed to establish the International Criminal Police Commission (ICPC), draw up a constitution of ten articles, and continue to work toward the goals of the 1914 Monaco congress. Vienna was selected as the site for the organization’s headquarters because Austria offered to house and finance it. At that time, the Austrian police were considered to be leaders in the field of maintaining records on international criminals. Schober became president of the Executive Committee, and Oskar Dressler, a lawyer and the chief of the Austrian Federal Police, was appointed secretary to the International Police Congress. Dues were set at one Swiss franc for every ten thousand inhabitants of each member country. It was also established that a General Assembly would convene once a year.

In 1925 at the third General Assembly, held in Berlin, it was suggested that each country establish a central point of contact within their police structure. Two years later Interpol adopted a resolution to formally establish national central bureaus (NCB) in each member country. NCBs facilitate a member country’s cooperation with the Interpol General Secretariat and with the NCBs of other countries.

In the beginning of the 1930s, the ICPC General Assembly, held in Antwerp, Belgium, began organizational independence by deciding to elect ICPC Executive Committee members by majority vote rather than the automatic appointment of Austrian police officials. Specialized departments were also established at headquarters, and included the Central Government; the International Bureau, concerned with currency counterfeiting; the International Criminal Records Office; and the Passport Forgery Bureau.

Schober died in 1932, and the post of secretary-general was created by a change in the statutes. The first to serve as secretary-general was Dressler, who retained the post until 1946. In 1935 the ICPC international radio network was inaugurated. The last General Assembly before World War II was held in Bucharest in 1938. The Nazi regime deposed ICPC president, Michael Skubl, and replaced him as chief of the Austrian police with Otto Steinhäusl, who thus automatically became president of the ICPC under the statutes of the organization at the time. In response, the countries of the free world stopped participating, and the ICPC effectively ceased to exist as an international organization. By 1942 the ICPC had fallen completely under German control and was moved to Berlin.

In 1946, after World War II had ended, a group of officials interested in continuing the idea of international police cooperation met in London to reestablish the organization. Florent Louwage, Belgium’s inspector general for state security and a former ICPC Executive Committee member, met with Harry Soderman of the Swedish Criminal Institute; Werner Muller, chief of the Swiss Federal Police; Louis Ducloux, director of the French Judicial Police; and Ronald Howe, assistant commissioner at London’s Scotland Yard. Their efforts resulted in the fifteenth General Assembly session in Brussels where seventeen nations were represented out of the nineteen that had renewed their ICPC membership.

France was chosen as the most suitable host country for the organization because it provided a central location, superior communication facilities, and was happy to accept financial and other obligations as host nation. At that time in Europe, France was also a pivotal location for international criminals.

In reorganizing, the ICPC established a democratic process for electing its president and members of its Executive Committee. At that time, the Executive Committee consisted of five members elected for five years: a president, a secretary-general, and three general rapporteurs (vice presidents). Louis Ducloux (France), as host-country representative, was named secretary-general. Florent Louwage (Belgium) was elected president, with Ronald Howe (United Kingdom), Werner Muller (Switzerland), and Harry Soderman (Sweden) as general rapporteurs.

The General Secretariat was allocated offices belonging to the French Ministry of Interior near the Champs Elysées in the eighth arrondissement of Paris. The coinage “Interpol,” a contraction of “International Police,” was chosen for the organization’s telegraphic address in 1946.

In 1949 the United Nations granted the ICPC consultative status as a nongovernmental organization. International radio communications regulations were adopted and appended to the organization’s General Regulations. The United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs encouraged the use of ICPC channels for the exchange of information on illicit drug traffic in 1955. Then, in 1956 at the twenty-fifth General Assembly session in Vienna, a new constitution was adopted and the name of the organization was changed to ICPO-Interpol, or simply Interpol. The status and function of NCBs were officially recognized in Articles 32 and 33 of the new constitution. The organization became autonomous by collecting dues from member countries and relying on investments as its main means of support. In 1959 the Council of Europe recognized Interpol as having constitutive status equivalent to a United Nations specialized agency, thus allowing cooperation and information exchange.

In 1960 the General Assembly met for first time outside Europe, in Washington, D.C. In 1961 the Counterfeit Currency Group, formerly headquartered in the Hague, Netherlands, was moved to Interpol’s General Secretariat in Paris. In 1963 the first regional conference was held in Monrovia, Liberia. The General Assembly outlined new operating policies for the NCBs in 1965, and the following year Interpol moved to new offices near the Bois de Boulogne on the outskirts of Paris.

In 1971 the United Nations Economic and Social Council granted Interpol the status of intergovernmental organization, clarifying its legal status as an international organization. This change permitted the two-way exchange of information, documents, consultants, and technical expertise, as well as the presence of Interpol observers at United Nations General Assembly sessions, and the right to submit proposals for the United Nations’ agenda.

The first Interpol president from the United States, John R. Simpson, was elected in 1984, and the following year the organization appointed its first non-French secretary-general since its 1946 reorganization, Raymond E. Kendall from the United Kingdom. Interpol subsequently decided to construct a new building for the General Secretariat in Lyon, France, a move that coincided with a complete reorganization of the internal structures of the secretariat.

In 1990 Interpol initiated its X.400 communication system, which enabled NCBs to exchange electronic messages directly with one another and with the General Secretariat. The introduction in 1992 of an automatic search facility allowed remote searches of the Interpol database. A new Interpol database, the Interpol Criminal Information System (ICIS), came into operation in 1998.

In 2000 Ronald Noble, Interpol’s first U.S. secretary-general, took office. Noble was reelected to serve a second termin 2005. Interpol’s I-24/7 Web-based communication system was developed in 2002. The new system, which replaced the obsolete X.400 system, improved NCB access to Interpol’s multiple databases.

Interpol’s Decision-Making Bodies

The General Assembly is the organization’s supreme governing body and it meets once a year. It is composed of delegates from each member state appointed by the appropriate governmental authority in their countries. The General Assembly makes all the major policy decisions affecting the organization, as well as decisions on working methods, finances, and budget; modes of cooperation; and the program of activities. It also elects representatives to the Executive Committee and approves applications for membership.

The Executive Committee usually meets three times a year. It ensures that General Assembly decisions are implemented, prepares the agenda for General Assembly sessions, approves the program of activities and the draft budget before they are submitted to the General Assembly, and supervises the secretary-general’s administration and work. The Executive Committee has thirteen members (a president elected for a four-year term of office, three vice-presidents, and nine delegates elected for three-year terms of office), and the seats are shared equitably among different regions of the world.

The secretary-general is the organization’s chief official and the head of the General Secretariat. The secretary-general is responsible for managing the daily work of international police cooperation and for the implementation of the General Assembly and Executive Committee decisions. The secretary-general is nominated by the Executive Committee and confirmed by the General Assembly for a five-year term with the possibility of reselection.

Structure and Budget

The General Secretariat is the permanent administrative and technical institution through which Interpol operates. It implements the decisions made by the General Assembly and the Executive Committee, supervises and coordinates the fight against international crime, centralizes information on crime and criminals, and maintains contact with national and international authorities. The General Secretariat staff is divided into two categories: police officers or international civil servants, seconded or detached by member states, and staff employed directly by the organization.

In each of the organization’s member states the National Central Bureau (NCB) is the focal point of cooperation. Each member state has a single Interpol “contact” whatever the type of criminal case involved, thus reducing linguistic difficulties. Furthermore, each NCB can initiate, at the request of any other NCB, large-scale operations that may involve other police or government departments. The NCBs collect documents and information relating to international law enforcement from sources in their own countries, and they share this material with other NCBs and the General Secretariat. Any NCB may restrict the circulation of information it provides, even down to a country-by-country basis. The communications systems developed by the General Secretariat have this facility as an integral feature. They also ensure that police inquiries and operations requested through Interpol channels are carried out in their own countries and that the results are communicated to the requesting party. In addition, they transmit to NCBs in other countries requests for international cooperation made by their own judicial authorities or other governmental departments.

International cooperation also enables law enforcement personnel from one member state to travel to another to investigate international offenses. The NCBs are responsible for organizing these missions or for authorizing them with the consent of the appropriate judicial authorities.

The heads of NCBs attend Interpol General Assembly sessions as members of their countries’ delegations and subsequently ensure that the General Assembly’s resolutions are implemented. NCBs may communicate directly among themselves. However, they are expected to send copies of their correspondence to the General Secretariat so the latter can perform its task of centralizing information and coordinating cooperation.

Groups of member states of a same region work in partnership with Interpol to provide sub-regional bureaus (SRBs). Managed by the General Secretariat, SRBs are partly financed by the member countries of the region concerned.

Interpol’s activities are primarily financed by the annual budget contributions of the member states. The operating budget for 2005 was just under 35 million euros. An external audit is conducted by an independent body appointed by the General Assembly.

Operational Police Support and Global Communications Network

Interpol provides a set of tools for international police cooperation: a global network, an international notice system, various databases, forensic services, and criminal analysis. Interpol’s worldwide police communications network is unique, and the fundamental tool that underpins international police cooperation. Known as I-24/7, it uses a high-security virtual private network over the Internet for heavily encrypted data. The system facilitates access to Interpol’s many databases of criminal information and allows police to transmit key data, including photographs and fingerprints, helping the law enforcement community to work together more effectively and much more quickly.

Interpol Notices

Interpol notices give the identity particulars, a physical description, and, sometimes, photographs and fingerprints of an individual suspect. Notices are used to assist the law enforcement community around the world by exchanging critical crime-related information.

Depending on their objective, five types of colorcoded notices are issued: (1) red notices—to make arrests with a view to extradition, contain full details of the national arrest warrant and the offense committed; (2) blue notices—to collect additional information about offenders and help trace them, and to locate witnesses to crimes; (3) green notices—to warn about offenders who operate in more than one country; (4) yellow notices—to locate missing persons (such as minors, people suffering from amnesia, etc.); and (5) black notices—to seek the identity of unidentified bodies by giving their descriptions and fingerprints where possible. Usually notices are issued at the request of NCBs, but the General Secretariat may also issue green notices on its own initiative.


Interpol maintains a series of interrelated databases to assist members in making full use of the information available. For example, special topic areas are devoted to drugs seizures, travel and identity documents, DNA, counterfeit payment cards, stolen motor vehicles, wanted and missing persons, other notice subjects, and stolen works of art. The majority of member countries have an automatic search facility, and other law enforcement services, such as customs and immigration, may also have access to Interpol databases that can help them in their crime prevention and detection work.

Forensic Services


Interpol provides support to enhance member states’ DNA-profiling capacity, encouraging DNA profile comparison across borders. Specifically, Interpol provides: a DNA database available to all member states with an international DNA-profile matching capacity; a DNA Monitoring Expert Group; and an International DNA Users’ Conference to focus on best-practice models and contemporary applications. Interpol also provides regional support in the form of national assistance packages, training, and workshops for member states connected by local forensic and investigational issues affecting DNA applications.


Interpol’s Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) offers member countries the opportunity to send and receive high-quality electronic fingerprints in compliance with Interpol standards to and from the General Secretariat. The AFIS branch also uses working groups to promote fingerprint training and identification standards, and organizes a biennial international fingerprint symposium. In addition to AFIS, Interpol has implemented ANSI-NIST, an internationally recognized standard for interoperability between AFIS systems, regardless of supplier. Any system can be automatically tested for compliance.

Disaster Victim Identification

Interpol recommends best practices in disaster handling procedures, in the areas of identification and international cooperation. It also emphasizes the importance of planning in advance for such events so that all the necessary elements of response are already in place if a disaster occurs.

Criminal Analysis

Interpol analysts work on strategic and operational projects, as well as offering training and consultancy to law enforcement bodies. Many of these projects are related to aspects of organized crime or terrorism. Regular threat assessments are produced on a global and regional basis, as well as for specific crime areas. Occasionally, Interpol also provides analytical assistance to other international bodies.

Meetings and Conferences

Representatives of member states meet to discuss cooperation matters specific to a particular continent or region, or to discuss certain types of crime, at regional conferences. Interpol also organizes symposia, where police officers and experts share experiences and technical information.

Interpol’s Specialized Activities

Interpol concentrates on three major groups of international crimes:

  1. Crimes against people and property: terrorism, crimes against children, trafficking in human beings, illegal immigration, fugitives, maritime piracy, weapons of mass destruction, stolen vehicles, and stolen works of art.
  2. Economic, financial, and high-tech crime: banking fraud, money laundering, counterfeit banknotes and payment cards, cybercrime, advance-fee fraud, corruption, and environmental crime.
  3. Criminal organizations and drugs: organized crime and drug trafficking.

In addition to assistance with crime investigations, the organization provides crime-intelligence analyses at global, regional, and crime-specific levels. The organization also supplies international crime statistics online.

Interpol and the International Community

Interpol has many contacts with a wide range of authorities and international institutions where cooperation is likely to be of mutual assistance. Its long-standing relationship with the United Nations was formally recognized in 1971 by the adoption of a special arrangement on cooperation between the United Nations Economic and Social Council and Interpol. Interpol signed a cooperation agreement with the Council of Europe in 1959. Since then it has worked with the council on crime issues and on the preparation of European conventions, many of which contain provisions stating that the signatories may use Interpol channels to forward judicial documents.

Interpol also cooperates with a number of other international bodies, and it participates in the activities of various non-governmental organizations. Interpol maintains formal cooperation agreements with many of these bodies and organizations. Interpol’s objectives in these relationships are to strengthen efforts, avoid duplication, exchange information, and share expertise.