Anger and rage are an everyday part of our work as human rights lawyers. But however much consternation we might feel about certain rights violations, we have to keep our composure. Our job is to take legal action against rights abuses, and this is only possible with a clear head.
But that can be difficult at times. I could hardly believe it when I first heard how the Spanish Guardia Civil shot rubber bullets at swimming migrants on the Moroccan-Spanish border in Ceuta on 6 February 2014. At the border, signs display welcome messages and emblems of the European Union – the winner of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. But shortly before reaching the territory of this Union on that February night, fifteen people died in the Mediterranean Sea.
Criminal investigations have been launched in Ceuta thanks to the work of Spanish NGOs. At the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights we are also involved in the case.
We’re not too optimistic though, as to date all criminal proceedings related to human rights violations at the border have been discontinued by the Spanish judiciary. But with the fifteen deaths in this case we thought that the authorities would make an effort to at least give the impression that a thorough investigation was underway. I didn’t want to think that the authorities there would ignore these deaths just because the people who died were black Sub-Saharan Africans. In part because of the high degree of public interest and because of the implicit threat of an appeal being brought to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, I expected some kind of action that could be regarded – at least from the outside – as a professional, legitimate and comprehensive investigation. The kind of investigation that would be carried out if the victims were, say, German or British tourists.
But then the investigating judge in Ceuta, Maria del Carmen Serván, ended the proceedings against the 16 Guardia Civil officers. In her view it was not illegal for police officers on the shore to shoot rubber bullets and tear gas at the swimming refugees. The extent of the problem at the border in Ceuta is made all too clear by one of her arguments in particular: that it was not possible to determine with any certainty whether the corpses that washed up over the next few days did in fact belong to the victims of the incident of 6/2/2014. This awful Ceuta lawyer went on to argue that the people in the water were not in need of help in accordance with international conventions because, after all, they had themselves assumed the risk of an “illegal” border crossing and took advantage of the cover of night to do so.
Her investigations surely did not meet the standards required under European law in such cases. This gives us hope that the regional court or Spain’s highest court would overturn the decision and order new investigations. The problem is that in these kinds of proceedings it is crucial to gather comprehensive evidence as quickly as possible after the incident, and this was not done in the Ceuta case – so the damage cannot now be undone.
Once again this shows that while police forces in Europe have been violating human rights for years in their role as enforcers of an inhumane border regime, they are assisted and given cover by the legal system. African refugees’ right to have rights is thus something that needs to be defended not only against European politicians and police forces, but all too often against European prosecutors and judges too. To fight this battle effectively we need our wits and our professional composure – but also a lot more rage.