Williams v. Spain

UN Human Rights Committee

Racial Profiling Is Discrimination

Rosalind Williams was stopped by a police officer on the platform of the station in Valladolid, Spain, and told to produce her identity documents. When asked why she was the only person stopped, the police officer told her “It’s because you’re black.” Williams complained of her treatment to the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations which found that it was unlawful discrimination.


In the afternoon of December 6, 1992, Rosalind Williams arrived at the Valladolid Campo Grande railway station on a train coming from Madrid. She was with her husband, Federico Augustín Calabuig, and their son Ivan Calabuig-Paris. Moments after they disembarked from the train, a National Police (Policia Nacional) officer approached Williams and asked her to produce her identity document (the Documento Nacional de Identificación or DNI). The police officer did not ask her husband, son, or any other passengers on the platform for their identity documents.

Williams and her husband asked the reason for the identity check. The officer replied that he was obligated to check the identity of persons who “looked like her,” adding that “many of them are illegal immigrants.” He went on to explain that in carrying out the identity check, he was obeying an order of the Ministry of the Interior that called on National Police officers to conduct identity checks, in particular, of “persons of color.” Williams produced her identity document, and took the number of his badge.

The following day Williams lodged a complaint with the National Police Headquarters in Valladolid (Jefatura Superior de Policia). The proceedings were dismissed at the pretrial stage after the after the court found that no crime had been committed.

In February 1993, Williams submitted a complaint to the Ministry of the Interior (Ministerio del Interior Registro General), challenging the apparent order of the ministry that called on National Police officers to target persons of color for identity checks and requesting that the General Administration of the State take for the unlawful actions of the Ministry of the Interior. The complaint argued that the practice of stopping people based on their race or ethnicity when carrying out identity checks contravened well-established Spanish and European legal norms against discrimination, arbitrary detention, and protecting freedom of movement. She also submitted medical documents as to the effect of the incident on her. The ministry rejected the complaint, and so Williams appealed to the National Court (Audiencia Nacional Sala de lo Contencioso-Administrativo).

The National Court dismissed the appeal on November 29, 1996, finding that there was an obligation to produce identity documents and that police were authorized to demand identification from foreigners. Because Williams belonged to the “black race” she was therefore more likely to be a foreigner.

Williams appealed to the Spanish Constitutional Court, alleging a violation of the prohibition of discrimination in Article 14 of the Spanish Constitution and of the European Convention on Human Rights. In a six-to-one decision issued on January 29, 2001, the Constitutional Court rejected her complaint, finding that a person’s racial or ethnic identity is a legitimate indicator of nationality, and to refer to the race of a person for a “descriptive” manner is not per se 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.” The court explained:

Open Society Justice Initiative Involvement

On behalf of Williams, the Open Society Justice Initiative filed a complaint to the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations together with Women’s Link Worldwide and SOS-Racismo Madrid.


The communication to the Human Rights Committee argued that the treatment of Williams violated various provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Jus Cogens. The prohibition against racial discrimination is recognized in all major international and regional human rights instrument and is a jus cogens norm of international law, creating obligation on states to ensure it does not occur, in accordance with Art.26 ICCPR.

Indirect and Direct. International law prohibits both direct and indirect discrimination, as does the European Union Race Directive.

Public Officials. Police officers are agents of the state and there is a positive obligation on the state to ensure they do not discriminate, through legislation where necessary.

Racial Profiling. The law enforcement practice of relying on generalizations about race, ethnicity, or national origin rather than specific objectively identified evidence that would link perpetrators to a crime is a form of racial discrimination that violates human rights law.

July 27, 2009

On July 27, 2009, the UN Human Rights Committee published its views in which it considered that there had been a violation of the ICCPR.


The Spanish Government had argued that Williams had delayed too long in making her submission to the UN Human Rights Committee. Williams replied that she was not able to do so earlier due to the emotional stress and financial cost of nine years of litigation in Spain. Only when Williams was able to find free legal assistance from an NGO was she able to continue the case. The Committee noted the difficulty of obtaining legal aid and found no abuse (at para. 6.3).


The committee gave its views on the question of whether racial profiling was a discriminatory practice.

7.2 ...The Committee believes that it is generally legitimate to carry out identity checks for the purposes of protecting public safety and crime prevention or to control illegal immigration. However, when the authorities carry out these checks, the physical or ethnic characteristics of the persons targeted should not be considered as indicative of their possibly illegal situation in the country. Nor should identity checks be carried out so that only people with certain physical characteristics or ethnic backgrounds are targeted. This would not only adversely affect the dignity of those affected, but also contribute to the spread of xenophobic attitudes among the general population; it would also be inconsistent with an effective policy to combat racial discrimination.

7.4. In this case, it appears that this was a case of a general identity check. The petitioner states that no one else around her was the target of a similar check and that the police officer that intercepted her alluded to her physical traits to explain why he asked her, and not others around her, to show her identity documents... [T]he Committee can only conclude that the petitioner was singled out only because of her racial characteristics, and this was the decisive factors for suspecting unlawful conduct.

8. Based on the foregoing, the Human Rights Committee considers that the facts before it reveal a violation of Article 26, read together with Article 2, paragraph 3 of the Covenant.


The UN Human Rights Committee concluded that the law should be changed, that there should be an apology to Williams, and that Spain must "take all necessary measures to prevent its officials from committing acts as in the present case." (at para. 9) The Committee also requested that the State party publish the opinion of the Committee and gave Spain until the end of December 2009 to implement the opinion (at para. 10).

The Open Society Justice Initiative will continue to act on behalf of Williams in order to ensure that an appropriate apology is given to her and that changes to the law are made.

December 31, 2009

Deadline for Government of Spain to make a public apology.

July 27, 2009

Views of the Human Rights Committee published.

September 11, 2006

Communication submitted to the UN Human Rights Committee.

January 29, 2001

Constitutional Court rejects appeal.

October 05, 1998

Appeal to Constitutional Court is registered.

November 29, 1996

National Court rejects appeal.

April 06, 1994

Appeal filed with the National Court.

February 15, 1993

Complaint filed with Ministry of the Interior, later rejected.

December 07, 1992

Complaint filed with National Police Headquarters, later rejected.

December 06, 1992

Williams stopped in Valladolid Railway Station.

August 12, 2009
Decision (English) Download the 11-page document. Download
August 12, 2009
Decision (Spanish) Download the 14-page document in Spanish. Download
September 11, 2006
Communication Download the 31-page document. Download

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