Still Waiting for an End to Police Discrimination in Spain

Rosalind Williams has a special place in the struggle against discrimination by European police forces against people of color and ethnic minorities. Twenty years ago, she was stopped and asked for her identity papers by Spanish police in a railway station. An African-American who had acquired Spanish citizenship by marriage, she was travelling with her husband and son; they were left alone by the police. The police officer explained he was obliged to stop people “who looked like her,” due to an order from the Ministry of the Interior, aimed at detecting illegal immigrants under the discriminatory assumption that Spanish nationals could only be white. Thus, the Ministry ordered that people of color must produce their identity documents to the police whenever asked.

Rosalind was rightly shocked and angry. She filed a court complaint, which went all the way to the Spanish Constitutional Court, where it was finally ruled upon in 2001, nine years after the stop. In the majority’s view, the stop was not discriminatory, as “specific physical or ethnic characteristics can be taken into consideration as reasonably indicative of the national origin of the person who has them.” Thus, Spain became the only country in the EU to have its highest court sanction the use of ethnic profiling. Represented by lawyers from the Open Society Justice Initiative and Women’s Link Worldwide, she then complained to the UN Human Rights Committee, which in 2009 agreed that she had been subject to discrimination and urged the Spanish government to change its policy and issue a public apology to Rosalind.

The HRC’s findings were echoed in subsequent reports from regional and international human rights bodies, including the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, or the European advisory Committee for the protection of national minorities.

Twenty years since she was stopped, we asked Rosalind Williams whether she thought anything has changed in Spain. She said she thinks that “there is a greater awareness and a greater concern” about ethnic profiling, but that police officers have adapated by looking for “more subtle ways to ask people for their identification.” As a result, she concluded, “I do not think ethnic profiling has stopped.”

This January, Mutuma Rutureere, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia, agreed with Rosalind’s conclusion, after conducting an official visit to Spain, where he met government and police officials and civil society groups. The information he received included a submission from the Justice Initiative highlighting the continuing problem of ethnic profiling by the police, and offering recommendations to remedy the situation. At the end of his visit, Mr. Rutureere reported his concern regarding the on-going “problem of identity checks by the police targeting particular ethnic groups, including minorities and migrants.” He urged the state and police authorities to adopt specific measures to avoid and prevent these discriminatory practices. He will issue a full official report in June.  

Last year, in response to the international pressure, as well as the demands of an increasing number of civil society organizations and grassroots groups, the Spanish government issued an official directive urging police to avoid actions based solely upon ethnic criteria of a suspect. But although the directive, known as Circular 2/2012, marked a positive first step, it is not legally binding; nor has it failed to fully stop the practice. Further, Spain remains the only country in the EU where its highest court has sanctioned ethnic profiling. Continued international attention is needed to support domestic efforts to encourage meaningful action.   

Rosalind Williams’ view that not much has really changed is born out by evidence gathered by the Brigadas Vecinales de Observación de Derechos Humanos, a civil society group that attempts to document identity checks through public observation. According to their 2012 report on “Racist identity controls in Madrid” the organization documented 225 discriminatory police stops in Madrid alone that occurred in the seven months since the issuance of the Circular. This is especially troubling as the Spanish National Police reported nearly nine million identity checks in 2011 alone and the number of checks observed by the Brigadas Vecinales represents only a small percentage of those occurred. As Spain becomes a more multiethnic country—today more than 12 percent of the population is of foreign descent—ethnic profiling increasingly stigmatizes and marginalizes a large and important growing part of Spanish society. 

When asked if she regrets the 17 years of legal procedures she undertook to seek justice, Williams responded: “The short answer is no. The long answer is that there have been times of disappointments of course. Sometimes I wanted to take my Spanish passport and my U.S. passport and buy a one-way ticket to San Francisco and never come back. But Spain is home, just like the United States. Madrid is home just like San Francisco is home… and in both places I have tried to be part of the society.”  

And as part of the Spanish society, Rosalind Williams thinks that “there has to be a solution, but it is not going to change by itself. There has to be some form of pressure on the government” from the outside.

Hopefully, Mr. Rutureere’s visit will achieve just that.

3 Comments

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This is the most ridiculous issue I have ever seen. There are far more terrible things happening in Spain at the moment, it is almost an insult to the country´s suffering that you are focusing on this silly story. You give this prominence because it involves an american citizen?? In Spain, 99% of black people are african immigrants and probably 95% entered the country illegally, regardless of their present status. Im pretty sure if you told any of them this story they would laugh out loud.... "The right not to be suspected of being african just because you are black"... Please don´t try to americanize us, we don´t have your issues with race.

Dear Jesús,

Thank you very much for your comment. It’s unfortunate to hear that you don’t agree not only with ourselves, but with the findings of the UN Human Rights Committee and the UN Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, amongst many others. While it may not mirror the same conditions in the U.S., as you suggest, racism and ethnic profiling nonetheless affect Spanish society. This is especially troubling given the fact that 12% of the Spanish population is of foreign descent and that the National Police conducted over 8,700,000 identity checks in 2011 alone. This is not an insignificant issue.

It is distressing to read that you equate Black people in Spain with being undocumented immigrants. This is simply not true and is, in fact, the precise racial stereotype and prejudice held by the National Police that we need to fix. Being Black or appearing to be Black is not a crime. To judge someone as criminal or illegal based upon their ethnic or racial features is not just incorrect or illegal, but is also ineffective. The police must base their stops upon reasonable suspicion not stereotypes, prejudices, and discriminatory beliefs. This is what it means to be a fair and effective police service in a democratic society.

Surely, there are many problems facing Spain currently, the economic crisis being an obvious one. This does not mean, however, that we can or should ignore other glaring problems affecting our society. In fact, if the crisis is your concern, that we welcome you to encourage the National Police to spend their money effectively, not by profiling. Fortunately, we believe that despite the challenges we face, we have the capacity and the need to make our society better for all those that live in it. This means making sure that Spain adheres to international law and constitutional protections against discrimination. It means that police services, especially the National Police, deliver fair and effective police services to everyone.

It's not a silly story. It's a story of a humiliated person. It's also about human dignity. Maybe your digniy doesn't matter for you but don't underpreciate it comparing with other stories. If someone would steal your wallet, would you like to listen from policeman, "come on, we have bigger problems than your silly story"?

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