UN rights experts criticise Spanish efforts to block Catalan vote

Duo say measures taken to halt independence referendum appear to violate fundamental individual rights

UN human rights experts have weighed in on the escalating row over Catalonia’s independence referendum, warning the Spanish authorities that their “worrying” efforts to halt Sunday’s poll appear to violate fundamental rights and risk stifling debate “at a critical moment for Spain’s democracy”.

The intervention by two specialists working for the UN human rights council comes as senior Catalan politicians urge the EU to step in to address Spain’s worst territorial crisis since its return to democracy four decades ago.

Although the referendum has been declared illegal by both the Spanish government and the country’s constitutional court, Catalonia’s pro-independence regional government is pushing ahead with the vote in the face of ever sterner countermeasures from the courts and the police.

In a statement on Thursday, David Kaye and Alfred de Zayas noted the recent arrests of 14 Catalan government officials, the blocking of referendum websites and the possibility that protest organisers could be charged with sedition. “Regardless of the lawfulness of the referendum, the Spanish authorities have a responsibility to respect those rights that are essential to democratic societies,” the experts said.

“The measures we are witnessing are worrying because they appear to violate fundamental individual rights, cutting off public information and the possibility of debate at a critical moment for Spain’s democracy.”

Kaye, special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and De Zayas, an independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order, also expressed reservations about the Spanish government’s decision to deploy thousands of extra police officers to Catalonia.

“We are concerned that this order and the accompanying rhetoric may heighten tensions and social unrest,” they said. “We urge all parties to exercise the utmost restraint and avoid violence of any kind to ensure peaceful protests in the coming days.”

The pair have spoken to the Madrid government about the issues they raised in the statement.

On Wednesday, the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, said the EU was turning its back on the region, and the Catalan foreign minister, Raül Romeva, accused the Spanish government of a “brutal crackdown”, adding that the EU needed to “understand that this is a big issue”.

Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, struck a more emollient note in an article for the Guardian, asking the European commission to “open a space for mediation between the Spanish and Catalan governments to find a negotiated and democratic solution to the conflict”.

The Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, attends a pro-independence rally
The Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, attends a pro-independence rally in Hospitalet de Llobregat, north-east Spain. Photograph: Andreu Dalmau/EPA

Earlier this week, the Catalan high court stepped in to stop the vote, instructing local and national police officers to prevent public buildings from being used as polling stations and to seize any material related to the referendum. However, Catalonia’s regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, has said shutting polling stations risks “a disruption of public order”.

The Spanish government has vowed to prevent the vote from being held, arguing that it would be a clear breach of the country’s constitution. But Puigdemont insists the vote will go ahead and that Catalonia will declare its independence from Spain within 48 hours of a victory for the yes campaign.

A European commission spokesman declined to comment on how the commission would respond if such a declaration of independence were made, saying: “I will not speculate on what will happen 48 or 36 or 72 hours afterwards.”

Thursday saw thousands of university students abandoning their classes to march through the streets of Barcelona, to protest against what they see as a draconian response to calls for independence. Laia Ferrus, a 20-year-old studying education, said the issue had moved beyond simple sovereignty. “It’s no longer about calling for independence,” she told the Associated Press. “It’s about standing up for our basic principles and rights.”

As the vote draws closer, the war of words between the central and regional governments has grown increasingly heated.

Puigdemont has accused the Spanish authorities of exceeding “the limits of a respectable democracy” and dragging Spain back to the Franco era, while others have compared the blocking of referendum websites to the actions of governments in Turkey, China and North Korea.

The Spanish government hit back, describing the Catalan independence movement as a manifestation of “extreme nationalism” and an “expression of populism” similar to those seen elsewhere in Europe.

Speaking to reporters in Barcelona on Thursday, a spokesman for the Spanish finance ministry said the outbreak of Catalan nationalism was nothing new: “It always erupts at times of economic difficulty. It always looks for an external enemy and it always has magic recipes – from Brexit to Marine Le Pen to the AfD.”

The spokesman dismissed Puigdemont – “His only mission is independence and to be a martyr for the cause” – and said Colau’s calls for European commission mediation were likely to go unheeded as the EU had made it quite clear that it regarded the Catalan question as an internal Spanish matter.

He argued that Catalonia already had considerable autonomy; with the exception of the armed forces, international diplomacy and pensions, Catalonia has control over all its affairs, including health, education and public order.

The spokesman also said that financial issues could always be reviewed. “Last year we proposed a new system of financing that would give autonomous regions more control over their finances, but Catalonia refused to attend the meeting of regional presidents. They didn’t want to take part in the negotiation.”


Sam Jones in Madrid, Stephen Burgen in Barcelona and Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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