Thursday

26th May 2022

Opinion

Catalonia shows dangers of jail terms for non-violence

  • While the security forces used disproportionate force against non-violent Catalan protesters, those protesters remained non-violent in their actions (Photo: Assemblea.cat)

Catalonia has been marked by street violence ever since the judgment and sentencing of the nine leaders of Catalan independence movement earlier this week.

This has been grimly predictable in light of the Spanish government's overbearing criminal justice response to the non-violent self-determination movement in Catalonia.

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As I have written in these pages, the Spanish government's response to the events surrounding the 1 October 2017 independence referendum have threatened the good functioning of EU law, violated the fundamental rights of Catalan people, not least the rights to freedom of opinion and expression and to a fair trial, and have inflamed a situation that could have and should have been dealt with through dialogue and negotiation.

Since the referendum, international observers have consistently raised alarm about what has been happening in Spain, cautioning against the approach taken by the government.

In October 2017, five UN independent experts and special rapporteurs called for political dialogue to defuse the tensions in Catalonia.

In April 2018, another, the UN special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, urged Spain not to pursue criminal charges, expressing concern that doing so would be disproportionate and a violation of freedom of expression.

In December 2018, the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders expressed concern regarding "excessive force, particularly through the use of anti-riot equipment and rubber bullets against largely peaceful protesters" and regarding the fact that "defenders of the right to self-determination... have faced increasing restrictions on their activities".

In January 2019, the UN special rapporteur on minority issues noted claims of an increased number of incidents of racism and hate speech directed towards the Catalan people as a result of the events of 2017.

Worse still, in May 2019, in two decisions related to those recently sentenced, the UN working group on arbitrary detention adjudged Spain to have violated the rights to a fair trial and to have arbitrarily detained the independence movement leaders.

It found that Spain had acted with the intent to, in the words of the vice president of Spain under the Rajoy government, "decapitate" the Catalan political leadership.

As all of these international authorities have noted, the events surrounding the October 2017 referendum were truly non-violent.

While the security forces used disproportionate force against non-violent Catalan protesters, those protesters remained non-violent in their actions.

A large part of this can be attributed to the zealous commitment to non-violence of the Catalan independence movement leadership.

Throughout October 2017, these leaders were seen talking with protesters, guaranteeing peaceful and non-violent events.

Now these leaders are imprisoned, convicted and sentence to lengthy sentences.

Behind bars, they continue to call for non-violence and to ask the crowds in Catalonia stay calm and true to the non-violent principles that underpin the movement.

But, unlike in October 2017, they are not there amongst the protesters.

From behind bars, their voices have been muted by a government determined to crack down harshly on independentist beliefs and by a European Union that is steadfastly refusing to do anything about the situation in Spain, in-spite of clear condemnation of Spain's actions internationally and even as it moves towards sanctioning the governments of Hungary and Poland for their attacks on independent institutions and civil society.

All of this was both predictable and predicted.

Time and again, across the world, efforts to "decapitate" non-violent movements, and refusals to engage in political dialogue with them, have led to situations like we are seeing today in Catalonia.

As many international observers warned the Spanish government's criminal justice approach to the independence referendum has incited violence.

In doing so, the Spanish government has failed in its most basic duties to its citizens.

It is within the powers of the Spanish government to pardon and free the Catalan nine. It needs to do so and to open a dialogue with the Catalan people to heal the rifts that are forming in Spain.

The European Union can no longer look on blindly and must encourage this.

Author bio

Ralph Bunche is the general secretary of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation, an international association of nations and peoples denied equal representation in the institutions of national or international governance. Previously he was the European regional director for Fair Trials, the global criminal justice watchdog, and ran the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe's largest trial monitoring programme.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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