UN cautions Spain against “excessive use” of police force, curtailing freedom

Venezuela asks the Spanish authorities to start “a constructive dialogue with the people of Catalonia”

On Wednesday Spain’s human rights record was examined by means of a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) before the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva. The three-hour long session kicked off with an address by the Spanish representative, followed by the intervention of all the member states that wished to take the floor. Spain received several red flags, namely about the “excessive use” of police force and curtailing freedom. The session even touched upon the situation in Catalonia.

The representative of Venezuela spoke briefly to ask Spain’s new government, led by PM Pedro Sánchez, “to start a constructive dialogue with the people of Catalonia and their institutions”. The Catalan issue was not raised specifically in other turns, but some of the warnings that were sent out seemed to hint at it. Such was the case of the representatives who spoke about the role of Spain’s police forces. Italy’s spokesperson asked the Spanish delegation “to investigate all the reports of excessive use of force” by police. Iraq, Switzerland, Mexico and Russia spoke along similar lines. The Swiss delegate asked for “a code of good practice” for security forces and advised Spain to deal with its “Francoist past”. The Russian representative demanded “an effective, independent probe into unlawful actions by security forces”.

Another salient issue was the freedom of expression, assembly and demonstration. Italy spoke again to encourage the Spanish authorities “to fully guarantee the freedom of expression and peaceful assembly”, while Belgium urged Spain to abide by Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which asserts “the right to peaceful assembly”. Also worthy of mention was the US delegate’s demand for Madrid to hold to account those responsible for “crimes against journalists and efforts to undermine the freedom of expression”. Germany, Cyprus, Iceland, Luxembourg, the Czech Republic, Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico and Canada also raised this same point. The Canadian representative added an important element: a request that laws pertaining to criminal offences of insulting the crown be reviewed. A total of fifteen countries mentioned a regression in freedom in those areas.

Criticism, but also praise

The session was conducted in a diplomatic tone throughout. In other words, besides criticism Spain also received some praise. An aspect that kept coming up was gender parity in Pedro Sánchez’s new government. The Spanish delegation was headed by Fernando Valenzuela, Spain’s deputy foreign minister, who spoke at the start of the session to state that Spain “meets the highest international standards” in terms of “civil liberties, freedom of demonstration and expression” and he concluded that Spain had passed the test “with flying colours”.

Catalan pro-independence leaders who followed the session were of the exact opposite opinion. Catalonia’s foreign minister, Alfred Bosch, spoke to say that “today Geneva has seen the most stinging rebuke the Kingdom of Spain has ever received on the subject of human rights”. The Catalan News Agency reported that ERC Secretary General Marta Rovira —who remains exiled in Switzerland— also stated that several of the reprimands that Spain was issued had a connection with “the rights that have been trampled over” in Catalonia.

Olivier Peter, Jordi Cuixart’s lawyer and Òmnium Cultural’s international spokesperson, stated that today’s session showed that “the UN is concerned about the violation of human rights in Spain”. Jaume Bardolet, who heads the Catalan National Assembly’s foreign policy, said he was pleased with how the session had panned out and played down the fact that Catalonia hadn’t come up more by arguing that the UN “uses highly diplomatic language”. “We weren’t expecting a more specific analysis of the Catalan issue. We are pleased”, he added.

A report will be published with all the observations made today by the member states and Spain will be encouraged to take them onboard. While it won’t be legally binding, in the future there will be a review to determine whether any measures have been adopted along those lines.