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Racial Profiling in Germany

An Introduction to the Symposium


In Basu v. Germany, an international body reminded Germany once again of its less-than-perfect human rights record regarding racial discrimination. In this case, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that Germany had violated the right to privacy according to Article 8 of the European of Human Rights (ECHR) in conjunction with the right to non-discrimination (Article 14 ECHR) by failing to provide a proper and independent investigation into allegations of racial profiling. This symposium takes the decision as a starting point to reflect on the practice of racial profiling in Germany and, more generally, on the place of race and racism in Germany and in international human rights discourse.

Germany likes to think of itself as a country that has learned from its utterly racist history. The German constitution, the Basic Law, is supposed to embody a complete break with the Nazi past. German governments regularly restate this in their reports to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the body of independent experts that monitors the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). With the dominant position being that Germany has learned from and broken with its Nazi past, it has long been all but impossible to even discuss the existence of racism in Germany.

During the past decade, the debate has started to shift. In 2011, a racist terrorist network called National Socialist Underground (NSU) revealed itself. Between 2000 and 2007, the NSU had murdered 10 people – mostly of Turkish descent – and carried out two bombings and several bank robberies. Throughout this time, German security agencies displayed typical patterns of institutional racism, treating the victims’ families as suspects, and refusing to investigate racism as a motive for the murders. In 2020, another series of racist murders brought the issue of racism into the political consciousness of German society in 2020. Particularly the anti-Semitic and racist terrorist attack with three fatalities in Halle in October 2019 and the racist terrorist attack in Hanau in February 2020, in which nine young people were murdered, have led to increased discussions about racism in Germany. As a result of the series of racist murders and the accompanying demands of migrant organizations, the federal government set up a cabinet committee to combat right-wing extremism and racism, which developed a catalog of measures. This marked the beginning of a new conversation in German society as a whole and can be seen as a political turning point in dealing with racism in Germany. The racist murder of George Floyd in May 2020 by a police officer in the USA also triggered widespread anti-racist protests in Germany by the Black Lives Matter movement. The demonstrations made it unmistakably clear that racism is neither unique to the USA nor a phenomenon of the past. Against this backdrop, the contributions to this symposium examine the ECtHR’s recent decision as an illustration both of recent conversations that allow for some small steps in the right direction and of Germany’s reluctance to deal with issues of racism – especially institutional and structural racism.

The symposium starts with Elisabeth Kaneza’s overview of Germany’s human rights obligations to respect, protect, and fulfil the right to equality and non-discrimination. This includes a cursory account of the many instances in which both international bodies and affected communities have reminded Germany of how it is falling short of these obligations, particularly pertaining to practices of racial profiling.

Anna Hankings-Evans, in her contribution, uses the Basu v. Germany case as an example and entry point for reflecting on how the prohibition of racial discrimination has remained marginalized within human rights discourse and jurisprudence. She contextualizes her argument by reflecting on how race has been a structuring category in the development of international law and on how the centrality of race continues to be veiled through notions of neutrality and objectivity.

Lisa Washington’s critical reflection on racist policing in Germany concludes the symposium. In her contribution, she highlights how affected communities have been struggling for years to draw attention to and get redress for racial profiling and other practices of racist politicking and situates German officials’ reluctance to tackle institutional racism within racialized notions of belonging in German society more broadly.

Overall, the contributions to this symposium welcome the ECtHR’s decision as a step in the right direction, while highlighting how long of a way German society still has to go.

Sué González Hauck

Dr. Sué González Hauck is a postdoctoral researcher at DeZIM Institute Berlin and at Helmut Schmidt University, Hamburg and Co-Editor-in-Chief at Völkerrechtsblog.

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