UAE plans DNA database of entire population

Police in the United Kingdom have recently been forced by the European Court of Human Rights to scale back their increasingly large National DNA Database (NDNAD), which previously potentially included DNA profiles of anyone arrested by the police, whether charged with any offence or not. This at least shows that there is some recourse to law and and a higher authority that will protect the rights of citizens against the extension of state power… in reasonably democratic Europe at least.

However authoritarian regimes need have no such concerns. The Persian Gulf state of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has decided that it is to create a national DNA database of the entire resident population. According to The National newspaper, this will not even need any kind of debate or  even new legislation. They estimate that this will take up to 10 years if population growth is factored in.The paper claims this will be the world’s first such comprehensive database, but this is only partly true. Iceland, Sweden and Estonia have all set up comprehensive DNA databases run by their health services. But the UAE’s certainly appears to be the first attempts at a comprehensive law enforcement DNA database.

DNA pioneer, Sir Alec Jeffrys, has his doubts of course. But learned critique, or opposition or overt resistance are probably all largely irrelevant to the UAE government. However, if there is to be a roadblock,  it may be the economy: the UAE’s population is made up to a great extent of temporary foreign workers of all skill levels and occupation types, and the economy depends largely on the willingness of such workers to continue to come to the UAE. Whilst those at the bottom may feel they have little choice, those at the top may decide that such a policy would make the difference between them coming to and investing in the UAE, or not. The second article claims that ‘visitors’ will be exempt, but not ‘residents’. How this plays out remains to be seen. I have no doubt that the UAE will give in to the pressure of global wealth and find some way of exempting rich foreign residents, whilst making absolutely sure that poor immigrant workers are the first to be sampled.

Racial profiling hits a new low

Just when you think that state surveillance in supposedly free countries could not sink any lower, it has been revealed that UK Border Agency is finding a pilot project into using DNA and isotope analysis to determine the origin of asylum-seekers. This is not a joke or a scare-story. It is a real project. Science Insider has the details here. The Agency is refusing to say who is doing this research for them, nor has it provided any references to studies that show that what they are proposing will work. It appears that most scientists working in the area think it is based on entirely faulty premises and there is no reason to believe it will work. That’s only a minor objection compared to the political and ethical ones of course. As the story in Science Insider points out the Border Agency seem to be making a fundamental (and totally racist) error in assuming that ethnicity and nationality are synonymous. And this research would probably not got past any university ethics committee, which makes one wonder what kind of screening or ethical procedures the Border Agency used, and indeed who would carry out such an obviously unsound piece of research. It’s another example of increasingly unaccountable arms-length agencies (which have proliferated in recent years) using the ‘technical’ as an excuse to bypass what should be a matter of high-level policy, and indeed something that so obviously harks back to the bad days of Europe’s racist and genocidal past that it beggars belief that any sane official would have let this get further than a suggestion in a meeting.

(thanks to Andy Gates for pointing me to the story)

UN Human Rights Committee Finds Discrimination in Racial Profiling

I received the following message from James A. Goldston, Executive Director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, on a very important finding on racial profiling by the UN Human Rights Committee. I reprint he message in full, as it speaks for itself.

On July 30, 2009, the United Nations Human Rights Committee became the first international tribunal to declare that police identity checks that are motivated by race or ethnicity run counter to the international human right to non-discrimination. The committee issued its views concerning the Rosalind Williams v. Spain communication, originally filed by the Justice Initiative and Women’s Link Worldwide in 2006.

Williams’ case began 17 years ago, when she, a naturalized Spanish citizen, was stopped by a National Police officer in the Valladolid, Spain rail station. Of all the people on the train platform, she was the only one to be stopped and asked for her identity documents. She was also the only black person on the platform. Williams soon launched a legal challenge to the identity check, claiming she was targeted because of her race. In 2001, the Spanish Constitutional Tribunal approved the practice of relying on specific physical or racial characteristics as “reasonable indicators of the non-national origin of the person who possesses them,” arguing that racial criteria are “merely indicative of the greater probability that the interested party not Spanish.” The court’s endorsement lent legitimacy to a pervasive discriminatory policy of ethnic profiling that had for years been widely documented by human rights monitoring bodies.

In finding a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights the UN Human Rights Committee concluded that while identity checks might be permitted for protecting public safety, the prevention of crime, or to control illegal immigration, “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.”

The committee found that while there was no written policy to conduct police identity checks on the basis of skin color, “…it does appear that the police officer did act according to such a criterion — something that was justified by the courts that heard the case. The responsibility of the State party is clearly compromised.”

“… the Committee can only conclude that the petitioner was singled out only because of her racial characteristics, and this was the decisive factor for suspecting unlawful conduct. The Committee recalls its jurisprudence that not all differential treatment constitutes discrimination if the criteria for differentiation are reasonable and objective and if the goal is legitimate under the Covenant. In this case, the Committee finds that the criteria of reasonableness and objectivity were not met.”

The implications of the UN Human Rights Committee’s judgment extend far beyond Spain, where ethnicity-based police stops are still a common practice, to wider Europe, where years of monitoring have revealed a persistent and damaging pattern of ethnic profiling of minorities and immigrants in police stops and searches without explanation and without clear or effective purpose. The Justice Initiative has documented the prevalence and harms of this impermissible practice in reports such as “I Can Stop and Search Whoever I Want” — Police Stops of Ethnic Minorities in Bulgaria, Hungary and Spain and Ethnic Profiling in the European Union: Pervasive, Ineffective, and Discriminatory!, and has long advocated for operational, policy, and legal reforms before national and regional actors.

Although previous regional human rights tribunals have touched upon the issue of ethnic profiling — most notably the European Court of Human Rights in its 2005 Timishev v. Russia judgment, which held that the applicant had been unjustifiably subjected to differential treatment in relation to his right to liberty of movement “solely” due to his ethnic origin — Williams v. Spain is the first case to explicitly challenge ethnic profiling as a practice, and the UN Human Rights Committee the first international tribunal to issue a ruling prohibiting race- and ethnicity-based police stops.

Following this landmark judgment, the Justice Initiative will continue to work with government representatives and law enforcement agencies in Spain and other EU Member States, as well as with EU institutions in Brussels, to make sure that the policy and practice changes in line with the principles established by the UN Human Rights Committee are adopted and implemented.

Click here for further information on the Justice Initiative’s work challenging ethnic profiling.