Anti-discrimination bodies in Spain: myth or reality?

For months now the team of CIDH Pro Igual has been trying to find out who to turn to in Spain in case of ethnic/racial discrimination. (Stress on discrimination – not hate crimes, or gender violence, or illegal immigration). The mission appears impossible.

According to the EU equality provisions (inter alia, the Race Directive), the EU states must establish independent equality bodies in charge of providing assistance to victims of discrimination. Spain was quite late to establish such a body, the European Commission even started proceedings against it. But finally such body or rather bodies were established. The EU website provides links to the Institute of the Woman, the Spanish Ombudsman and the Disability Council, while the Equinet points to OBERAXE (see below). With the Disability Council things are clear — it deals with discrimination on the ground of disability.

The Spanish Ombudsman, on the other hand, can address discrimination on any grounds, including racial or ethnic origin. A slight problem: it only deals with acts of discrimination or injustice allegedly committed by public bodies. It specifically states that it is not competent to deal with conflicts between private parties, which incidentally present a very large portion of discrimination cases. This is true of the National Ombudsman as well as the Ombudsmen and Ombudswomen of autonomous communities.

Spain also has Ministry of Equality. Under Ministry´s auspices, besides the Disability Council, there is also the Non-Discrimination Council/Racial and Ethnic Origin. But it is proving quite elusive: there is no contact for this Council. Contact information provided on the website of the Ministry of Equality leads to the Institute of the Woman, that is, issues of gender discrimination/violence, and to the Observatory of Racism and Xenophobia (OBERAXE).

On the website of OBERAXE, the email address provided for contact is incorrect or outdated: (letters that the CIDH Pro Igual tried to send to that address bounced, on file). Then there is also contact information for other competent authorities in charge of dealing with discrimination cases, by province: It leads to: local governments (ayuntamientos), Ombudsman of a respective autonomous community, and … NGOs. (Interestingly enough, NGOs are apparently regarded as state agents in this case.)

But then things get even more interesting. Some provinces are better endowed with civil society organisations than others. Somebody lucky enough to live in Madrid or Barcelona has at his or her disposal an impressive list of anti-racism NGOs that can assist with filing claims, offer psychological and other help. Somebody living in a smaller and more remote/less cosmopolitan area has the local government, and maybe a church to turn to. Still many other of the so-called contacts provided on the Observatory´s website are outdated and lead nowhere.

But even when the organisations are valid, the question arises: are NGOs really equipped to take on the role of the national equality body? There is not a single nongovernmental organisation in Spain that is big enough to reach to all corners of the country or cover all grounds of discrimination. Nor do they get sufficient resources for this task. Has the Spanish state simply created a ghost body without real tasks and pushed its own responsibility for anti-discrimination work onto NGOs?

Last but no least, a special mention should be made of the police. In communications between CIDH Pro Igual and the Ministry of Equality (on file), a representative of the Ministry of Equality suggested that in case of ethnic/racial discrimination an alleged victim should go to the police, furnishing as much proof of discrimination as possible. It seems rather strange that the police would deal with non-violent cases, such as a polite refusal to let minority persons to a private disco or a shop, especially if some sort of an excuse is offered. Some NGOs (SOS-Racismo Madrid) have claimed that, on the contrary, if persons complaining of discrimination did not have valid residence papers, the police would open deportation proceedings against them. Well, in that case the police may be effective in reducing the number of potential victims of discrimination by removing them from the country, rather than having a real impact or deterrence on the actual phenomenon of discrimination.

The question, however, remains — where CAN a victim of alleged racial (nonviolent) discrimination committed by private parties turn to in Spain?