UN Rapporteur Highlights “Pervasive Problem” of Ethnic Profiling by Police in Spain

The Open Society Justice Initiative is urging Spain to respond positively to a new United Nations report, issued on May 28, that calls the practice of ethnic profiling by its law enforcement officers during identity checks “a persisting and pervasive problem.”

The report [pdf] by the UN’s special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, Mutuma Ruteere, found that ethnic profiling by police and other agencies in Spain has “significant adverse impacts on police/community relations and the enjoyment of the rights of the individuals targeted.”

The report was submitted to the UN Human Rights Council after a visit by Mr. Ruteere to Spain in January. It states: “The problem of identity checks by the police targeting particular ethnic groups, including minorities, the Roma and migrants, especially from Africa, Asia and South America, remains a challenge.”

The government claims that it has already taken significant steps to address ethnic profiling, including the adoption in May last year of Police Directive (Circular 2/2012), which stated that police should avoid indiscriminate actions based solely on ethnic criteria.

The UN report notes that civil society groups have reported that “ethnic profiling has persisted after the entry into force of the new Circular.”

The Brigadas Vecinales de Observación de Derechos Humanos, a community-based watchdog group, reported 255 discriminatory stops in Madrid in the six months after the entry into force of the Circular. The government has admitted that it does not have data on whether the police directive is actually working to prevent ethnic profiling.

The Justice Initiative notes the government’s failure to respond to the report’s recommendation to ensure that the law “includes a specific prohibition of racial profiling and establish clear criteria for law enforcement agents for initiating and conducting stops and identity checks.” The report also recommends that Spain: 

  • Introduce and implement registration forms by the police to record all identity checks, in order to provide the victims of ethnic profiling with a record of their encounter with the police, and to collect ethnically disaggregated data on stops.
  • Establish a police oversight mechanism in relation to racial discrimination and ethnic profiling.
  • Ensure ethnic and cultural diversity within the police forces.
  • Improve police-community relations and build trust and implement community policing initiatives.
  • Provide resources for human rights and non-discrimination trainings for the police.
  • Conduct awareness-raising campaigns to inform individuals of their rights.

Most of the good practices recommended by the special rapporteur have successfully been implemented by local police force in Fuenlabrada, a city outside Madrid. Efforts by the police in Fuenlabrada and Girona were highlighted by his report as “an example of a good practice that can be emulated by other jurisdictions.”

James A. Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, noted that the UN Human Rights Committee had ruled over four years ago in the case of Rosalind Williams v. Spain that the use of ethnic profiling by Spanish law enforcement officers constituted unlawful discrimination. He added:

“The Spanish government knows it has a problem. And it also has good evidence from Fuenlabrada and elsewhere that monitoring may reduce the number of unnecessary stops, even as it increases the proportion resulting in arrest or seizure of contraband. The costs of doing nothing will be measured in increased alienation and bitterness among the communities who are being illegally and unfairly targeted.” 

The Open Society Justice Initiative, part of the Open Society Foundations, uses law to protect and empower people around the world. The Justice Initiative’s work on eliminating discrimination includes research, litigation and capacity-building aimed at ending ethnic profiling by police in the United States and Europe.