INTERPOL works with UN to ensure global safety

An exclusive interview with Odd Reidar Humlegård

interpol

Photo: Marit Fosse
Odd Reidar Humlegård has served as special representative of INTERPOL to the United Nations.

Marit Fosse
Geneva

Whenever you talk about the police, images from TV series and movies might come to mind. You think about murders, muggings, and arrests of all kinds; you may feel more than a little uneasy. The uniforms and the overall look have definitely been designed to make a certain impression. You cannot help but wonder if the special representative of INTERPOL to the United Nations, Odd Reidar Humlegård, will be like any of the characters on the screen. With fears put aside, in reality, we meet a warm and friendly man.

Humlegård has a long and very impressive CV. He has been the Norwegian national police commissioner, a special adviser to the Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security, and now for the last two years, he has been based in New York as INTERPOL’s representative to the United Nations. What follows is a conversation with him, edited for brevity and clarity.

Marit Fosse: Could you tell us a little about INTERPOL and what you are doing here?

Odd Reidar Humlegård: Organizations such as INTERPOL that have observer status at the United Nations have so-called special representatives, unlike United Nations member states that refer to their diplomatic presence as the permanent mission to the UN have either a permanent representative with the rank of ambassador, or ambassadors. So, I am officially a special representative.

We have three such representatives. Besides myself there is one in Brussels covering the European Union and another one in Nairobi covering the African Union. So, while we are three special representatives all together, I’m the only one covering two offices, Vienna and New York.

We have been here in this office since 2004 and have been cooperating with the United Nations for a long time, going back to 1996 and even occasionally before that. The cooperation between the United Nations and INTERPOL has steadily grown closer. It was not so many years ago that we got a separate resolution on this.

INTERPOL’s headquarters is located in Lyon, France, and has about 1,100 employees. In each of the 195 member countries, there are INTERPOL offices called National Central Bureaus, and they are in different locations. Here in the United States, it’s part of the Department of Justice. So, it’s organized very differently from one country to another. The same applies to the way the police are organized.

In many countries, you can have federal police, then a carbinieri, a polizia nationale, polizia de la strada, polizia finanzia, and in addition you have a local police force. So, it can be a conglomerate of organizations.

The United States has 18,000 police districts. In fact, there are as many U.S. police districts as there are employees in the Norwegian police. They encompass everything from very small sheriff’s offices with three employees to the New York Police District with its 50,000 employees. There are also 30 different federal police organizations, such as the FBI, Homeland Security, etc.

INTERPOL is independent of how the police are organized locally. You have an office in each country, a kind of hub, the National Central Bureau. When you include all these, there are many thousands of people working in INTERPOL, but those directly under the Secretary General working in Lyon number about 1,100.

MF: What exactly are you doing in INTERPOL— are you just looking for criminals?

ORH: I usually say, when I talk about INTERPOL, that INTERPOL has a lot in common with Coca-Cola. Most people in the world have heard of Coca-Cola, but very few people know what it is all about. The same goes for INTERPOL. Very few people really know what we do much less understand the essence of it.

There’s a lot of misrepresentation in literature, crime novels, and films about INTERPOL officers coming in helicopters and arresting people—that’s not what INTERPOL does. INTERPOL does many things, but it’s always the member states that take the lead. Very often, INTERPOL is involved in coordinating major operations, for example to seize drugs, or to carry out border controls and operations concerning human trafficking and weapons. We work together with the member states. The core or capital of INTERPOL is its 19 databases.

Let me first say that INTERPOL was established 100 years ago, in Vienna. This year, we will celebrate its 100th anniversary on Sept. 7. Last year, I was here in New York with Norwegian Police Commissioner Jon Christian Møller negotiating a United Nations day to mark the value of international police cooperation. We succeeded, and it will be marked for the first time this year on Sept. 7.

INTERPOL was established to manage cross-border police cooperation. The most important thing we do is collect, systematize and share information. Thus, we have 19 databases that are very busy, because they collect everything imaginable: fingerprints, DNA, lost and stolen passports, vehicles, missing persons, among other things. Just to give you an idea of the enormous exchange of information and how important this is for international police cooperation, every day there are 20 million searches in these databases, and the response time is 0.5 seconds.

When you cross borders and the customs officers put your passport into a machine, they are in reality checking if you are wanted or, in official terms, if there is a “notice” on you. There are currently some 70,000 of these notices issued now, and customs officers are in reality checking your passport against INTERPOL’s databases.

International police work would not function without INTERPOL. As I said earlier, we have 195 member states, which is two more member states than the United Nations. We have some regional offices, whose main mission is to provide support to countries where the police are struggling with poor capacity or need more training, either capacity building or technology training.

There is a huge scope to the organization. We have member states ranking at the very top, with well-equipped police forces and cyber expertise, on down to countries with a lesser level of education or that are struggling to keep up to date with capacity, technology and knowledge and need support and help, especially with cyber technology.

And then we have the control center, a 24-hour service that member states can call at any time and get answers to their questions. It starts off in Singapore, and then it switches over to Lyon headquarters, and then it goes on to Argentina. There is always somebody to answer no matter what time people call. The control center also coordinates operations, or, in the event of major incidents or accidents, INTERPOL often sends teams to disaster areas. For example, after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, INTERPOL sent a team to help identify the dead.

After looking at the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, we started to work on our own Global Policing Goals (GPGs), which are a kind of response from INTERPOL.

As the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said in 2015, there will be no long-term development and improvement without security, and there will be no long-term security without development. We developed seven GPGs to address a range of issues related to crime and security. Endorsed by our member countries in 2017, the goals were officially launched in 2018. However, we had already started to work on these well before that. I was involved in this project as early as 2016.

Not so long ago, I gave a presentation at the Security Council when Malta held the presidency. They had on the agenda, “What are the security policy consequences of global warming and sea level rise?” This is of course relevant for Malta, which is located on an island, but also for many other countries. Then I referred to Goal 7, “Support environmental security and sustainability.” I spoke about how INTERPOL has several programs on preventing and combating environmental crime, whether it’s illegal logging in the rain forests, illegal fishing or hunting—all sorts of environmental crimes.

It’s interesting to see that this Goal 7 touches most of the U.N. SDGs. You asked me if we in INTERPOL arrest people. I might say, rather, we try to put crime into a larger context. There are SDGs about education, health care, food, getting people out of extreme poverty, etc.

These are all very important, but if you are a victim of domestic violence, sexual abuse, exploitation, contemporary forms of slavery, human trafficking, you are not leading the kind of life that Agenda 2030 aims to achieve. That’s why it’s very motivating for me to work here. It’s very important to talk to diplomats or United Nations employees to get them to reflect on the value of a well-functioning police force under the rule of law, and legal systems with judiciaries that work.

One cannot ignore that many countries struggle with significant degrees of corruption, compounded by a police force that is not competent enough to deal with crime and where corruption is a huge challenge.

Warm blankets and food are basic necessities, but health care and safe local communities so that you don’t get raped or kidnapped on the way to school, or killed, are equally very important things. That’s why I talk about it a lot in the meetings I have with diplomats, and in presentations and lectures I give, whether it’s in the Security Council, the General Assembly, or in various themed meetings.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is right on target when he speaks about the importance of this topic. This year, we are actively participating in different committees in revising the SDGs. In December last year, we met here with the INTERPOL secretary general and representatives from all the regional police organizations, such as Europol, Amerpol, Africanpol, Asianpol, etc. They were here for two days.

On the agenda, one item was how to review and revise these seven global police goals. This is happening in parallel with what is happening with the SDGs. Once again, it is important that we follow up. For us, it is also a way of cultivating understanding of the necessity of the police and law enforcement institutions. The plan is that this will be presented at the SDG summit, during the high-level weeks, and then it will be presented at INTERPOL’s general assembly in Vienna at the end of the year.

MF: What are you doing in the area of global cybercrime?

ORH: One of our biggest programs is dealing with cybercrime, and the other one is counterterrorism. These are two pervasive programs that run around the world in the INTERPOL organization. We have our own cyber directorate in Singapore, which is involved in innovation, development, and technology protection, with many operations up and running. We also work closely with industry, the major actors within the technology companies.

MF: How does AI fit into your work?

ORH: We have a directorate in Singapore that works with innovation and technology development. So, we’re keeping an eye on AI and something called metaverse, which is going to be dominant for the rising generation. It establishes an artificial world. You can buy a virtual property and invest in the metaverse around the world. We had metaverse as a topic at a meeting in New Delhi last October. We’re following this and working closely with other organizations and think tanks, as well as industry, i.e., the technology companies.

MF: You will soon be leaving New York and INTERPOL. What will you do next?

ORH: I am actually employed by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security since leaving my position as the Norwegian Police Commissioner. The ministry sent me to INTERPOL. I’ve been here now for two years, and I will be leaving shortly, as the ministry has given me another important assignment. Initially, I was supposed to have stayed here only eight months more, but then one thing led to another.

I will join the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies and work on strengthening expertise in competence and leadership development within the total defense concept. In short, there are two commission reports that will be presented in Norway soon—one is from the defense commission headed by Knut Storberget and the other is from the total defense commission, which was appointed by the government last year and is very relevant, given the new security policy situation in Europe and thus for Norway. The two commission reports will be important in the follow-up of this.

I will be working on it and will see how we can strengthen cooperation with the defense sector, defense capabilities, and the Ministry of Justice’s subordinate agencies— the police, police security services, national security and preparedness. It will be an exciting job.

As I left Humlegård’s office in New York, I thought about the things that he had said. What we take for granted in many places is not the reality in other parts of the world, and my impression about the police has definitely changed. We wish Special Representative of INTERPOL to the United Nations Humlegård all the best of luck in his new endeavors.

This article originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE.

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Marit Fosse

Marit Fosse trained as an economist from Norwegian school of Economics and Business Administration in Bergen (Norges Handelshøyskole NHH) and then earned a doctorate in social sciences. She is the author of several books. Nansen: Explorer and Humanitarian, co-authored with John Fox, was translated into Russian/Armenian/French. In addition, Fosse is the editor of International Diplomat/Diva International in Geneva, a magazine set up 20 years ago for diplomats and persons working in the international organizations in Geneva but also elsewhere. In her free time, Fosse is an accomplished painter.