The following article originally appeared in the International Herald Tribune. James Goldston is executive direct of the Open Society Justice Initiative; Rachel Neild is senior advisor on ethnic profiling and police reform with the Equality and Citizenship Program of the Open Society Justice Initiative.
BRUSSELS—Six months after the deaths of two Muslim youths fleeing police sparked riots across France, many European leaders continue to equate security with tough policing of minority communities. Simply cracking down in Muslim neighborhoods won't work, however, whether the aim is to combat ordinary street crime or to halt terrorist violence. Indeed, the implicit premise that race or religion is an accurate predictor of criminality is a recipe for disaster.
For decades, the growing heterogeneity of Europe's population has met with popular unease and official silence. And yet, on the streets of European capitals, young Muslims and virtually anyone who looks "different" have been subjected to extra scrutiny, disproportionate stops and searches, and, at times, harassment. Their situation, always precarious, has worsened over the past few years because of the terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States.
Now that the stakes have been raised, authorities face a dilemma. How should they respond to a genuine threat widely perceived to emanate from one religious community without intensifying the very alienation that can breed violence?
Though it has no consistent name, ethnic profiling has become a major component of the fight against terrorism in several European countries.
The proportion of "Asians" stopped by police under British antiterrorism powers tripled in the 18 months after 9/11. To date, none of these has resulted in conviction for a terrorism offense. Massive data-mining operations in Germany from the end of 2001 until early 2003 collected sensitive personal information about 8.3 million people but did not identify a single terrorist suspect. Other manifestations of ethnic profiling in Europe yet to prove effective include raids on mosques and mass identity checks of Muslims.
To be sure, European governments have tracked down and prosecuted terrorists. But this has usually been the product of intelligence-based investigation over extended periods focused on time-bound and event-specific matters, not broad stereotypes.
By branding whole communities as suspect, ethnic profiling not only legitimizes prejudice among the general public, it also engenders feelings of humiliation and resentment among targeted groups. Since 2001, many Muslims in Europe fear that they are stopped and searched on the basis of "looking Muslim" rather than reasonable suspicion.
Moreover, profiling may divert attention from actual threats that fall outside the prescribed criteria. Before the July 2005 attacks in London, British intelligence had come across the leader of the bombers in connection with another plot, but had not pursued him because he did not fit their profile.
Finally, the more predictable law enforcement profiling becomes, the easier it is for terrorists to adapt. No less an authority than the British government itself concluded last month—in its official report on the 2005 London bombings—that "there is not a consistent profile to help identify who may be vulnerable to radicalization."
If targeting Muslims and other ethnic minorities makes no sense, what is to be done?
First, work with, rather than against, communities of interest. As a senior counterterrorism official in the Netherlands underscores, "community relations are crucial to gathering information ... It is far more important to maintain community relations than any results that stop and search can achieve."
Second, monitor and measure the performance of law enforcement agencies. For too long, Europe's conscious avoidance of racism has been facilitated by the absence of data or any systematic assessment that takes into account ethnic differences. Monitoring of law enforcement is essential to foster accountability and provide a foundation of knowledge on which to build policy.
Third, change the law. To date, Britain is the only European Union member that has expressly banned racial discrimination by law enforcement officers. Governments should adopt specific provisions that ban discriminatory practices by law enforcement officers, including ethnic profiling. Although principal responsibility lies at national level, the transnational character of much terrorism gives the EU a role to play.
The threat of terrorist violence, like the everyday reality of ordinary crime, is genuine and must be addressed. The challenge is to do so in ways that enhance, rather than undermine, human security and individual rights. Ethnic profiling strikes at the heart of the social contract linking law enforcement to the communities they serve.