The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has put the Spanish government on notice: Spanish police who engage in ethnic profiling are violating the human right to nondiscrimination.
Following well-corroborated reports that Spanish police forces habitually carry out massive identity checks and raids on the basis of race or ethnicity, often in areas with high concentrations of foreigners, the CERD used its recent review of Spain’s compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination to urge the Spanish government to take “effective measures” to ethnic profiling, including the modification of existing laws and regulations which permit its practice. (A copy of the CERD’s concluding observations of its March 2011 review are available from the UN [Spanish-language pdf].)
The CERD’s findings come shortly after another major discrimination watchdog expressed similar concerns: In its February country report [pdf], the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance urged Spain to ensure an effective prohibition of ethnic profiling practices by its police forces, noting that they reinforce prejudice and stereotypes against certain ethnic groups and legitimize racial discrimination these vulnerable groups.
Since 2005, the Open Society Justice Initiative has been documenting the prevalence of ethnic profiling in Spain, finding it to be a persistent and pervasive problem, as part of a wider drive to bring European practice in line with European and international law.
Spanish police routinely rely on physical or racial characteristics when conducting stop and search operations in both ordinary law enforcement operations and immigration control operations. The latter have been shown to disproportionately target people from Africa, the Americas, and the Middle East simply because they don’t “look” Spanish, regardless of their actual immigration status.
This practice continues despite the fact that the United Nations Human Rights Committee found this practice to be impermissible in its 2009 decision in the Rosalind Williams v. Spain case, brought by the Justice Initiative and Women’s Link Worldwide. The Human Rights Committee found that while identity checks can be carried out for protecting public safety, preventing crime, and controlling illegal immigration, the physical and ethnic characteristics of people targeted cannot be considered indicators of potentially illegal immigration status and cannot serve as justification for identity checks.
The Spanish government’s response to the Williams decision has been to deny that ethnic profiling is a not a problem in modern-day Spain, and to insist that its police officers are sufficiently trained in human rights so as to avoid racially discriminating against Spanish residents. The ongoing criticism by monitoring bodies such as the CERD and ECRI, not to mention human rights groups such as Amnesty International, strongly suggests otherwise.
The way forward for the Spanish government is clear: It must confront the discriminatory behavior of its law enforcement officers and take steps to eradicate ethnic profiling once and for call.
It can start by issuing its police forces clear instructions that they are not permitted to take into consideration race, ethnicity or other physical characteristics when deciding who to stop for an identity check or search, save in the case where they have specific and reliable information on a particular suspect.
Rather than providing its officers with general human rights training, the Spanish government should mandate operational trainings and instructions specifically aimed at understanding, addressing, and decreasing ethnic profiling.
In addition, it should expand on local initiatives that have successfully challenged ethnic profiling in Spain, such as the documentation effort launched in 2008 by both the Fuenlabrada and Girona municipal police departments.