Press release

Groundbreaking Lawsuit Challenges Racial Profiling by Police

September 12, 2006
+1 212-548-0378

GENEVA—In the first-ever legal challenge to racial profiling filed with an international human rights tribunal, a coalition of advocacy groups today submitted an application to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, seeking to halt racial profiling by police.

The application challenges a ruling by the Spanish Constitutional Court which held that police could target blacks for identity checks because racial appearance is a proxy for immigration status. Racial profiling is a growing problem in many European countries, including Spain, and the application asks the Committee to rule that race may not be used as a criterion in police stops.

The case, Rosalind Williams Lecraft v. Spain, concerns an African-American woman of naturalized Spanish citizenship who was stopped and asked for identity documents by a National Police officer in the Valladolid train station in 1992. When Williams asked why she, and not the Caucasian family members accompanying her, had been stopped, the officer, pointing at Williams, explained that he had been told to identify persons who “looked like her,” adding, “many of them are illegal immigrants.”

“This case is important because racial and religious minorities are increasingly being subjected to police stops and scrutiny,” said James A. Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative. “We are asking the Human Rights Committee to make clear that racial profiling is unlawful.”

Williams is being represented before the Human Rights Committee by the Open Society Justice Initiative, Women’s Link Worldwide, and SOS Racismo-Madrid. In appealing to the Committee, Williams is arguing that the police action breached her rights to nondiscrimination and freedom of movement, as enshrined in Articles 2, 12(1) and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

In 2001, the Spanish Constitutional Court condoned the police practice of relying on specific physical or racial characteristics as “reasonable indicators of the non-national origin of the person who possesses them.” The Court reasoned that racial criteria are “merely indicative of the greater probability that the interested party was not Spanish.” The Court’s endorsement lent legitimacy to a pervasive, discriminatory policy of racial profiling in Spain that has been widely documented by monitoring bodies.

“Discriminatory police stops are not just wrong—they’re bad policy,” observed Viviana Waisman, executive director of Women’s Link Worldwide. “They are an invitation to police abuse and often put especially vulnerable populations, such as minority women, in dangerous situations.”

The racial profiling suffered by Williams was not an isolated event. Rather, it is emblematic of a larger pattern of racial profiling and discriminatory conduct by Spanish law enforcement officers. A recent report on racial profiling in Spain, Ethnic Profiling in Spain: Investigations and Recommendations, written as part of a larger Open Society Justice Initiative project on ethnic profiling in Europe, demonstrates that Williams’s experience is common among racial and ethnic minorities in Spain. The report documents the pervasiveness of racial profiling by law enforcement in Spain, including repeated stops and searches of ethnic minorities without explanation and the use of racist language by police officers.

As Spain attracts a growing population of immigrants from Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere, the use of race as a basis for immigration control not only violates fundamental rights; it is also irrational and counter-productive to the many efforts Spain is undertaking to welcome and integrate its growing immigrant and ethnic minority population.

Further information on these cases is available at the Open Society Justice Initiative website and


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