Home Op-Eds Spain: the World is watching Human Rights Watch in Catalonia

Spain: the World is watching Human Rights Watch in Catalonia

Elderly protester seen helpless as she is lifted up from the ground by two policemen.
Elderly protester seen helpless as she is lifted up from the ground by two policemen.

Washington, DC – As Kartik Raj, Human Rights Watch Europe researcher, concludes his “work week in Catalonia looking into allegations of excessive use of force during the #CatalanReferendum”, it is important to remind the American based human rights organization of its obligations to faithfully document and uncompromisingly report on Spain’s alleged violations and abuses against civilians and non-violent political activists.

Human rights activists around the world, especially in developing countries, are watching how HRW would handle the crisis in Spain. For many years, oppressive governments have argued that “these types” of western organizations are hypocrites, biased and too soft on European countries. Thus, the results of the mission to Catalonia to evaluate the veracity of abuse allegations is vital to the future work of human rights organization in non-European countries.

While HRW and Amnesty International (AI) issue regular reports on human rights violations in West European countries, the accounts mostly center on police brutality against minorities and immigrants. The situation in Catalonia is different since the police brutality targeted the local “native” population.

Given the widespread of dozens of pictures and videos on social media showing security forces brutalizing unarmed civilians, it would be easy for HRW to document the disproportionate use of force by the Spanish police.  However, human rights activists would be looking also for documentations and reporting on the Spanish judicial system’s role in giving a legal cover for the government to mitigate it civil rights violations against the Catalan.

Would HRW and AI consider the pro-referendum activists and the high ranking officials in the Catalan government who were arrested by the Spanish police as political prisoners? Are pro-independence Catalan mayors who were threatened with criminal charges Prisoners of Conscience?

Madrid cannot contend that the “illegitimacy” of the referendum gave its police the justifications to violate the pro- independence activist rights to free expression and assembly. Spain, a signatory country to most international civil and human treaties, must answer for the abuses allegedly perpetrated by its forces.

HRW and AI do not take positions on political issues such as independence or self-determination, however, their reports are always used as bases and supporting documents in legal cases at European institutions, international courts and United Nations’ commissions. This fact is not lost on the Catalan pro-independence politicians who are welcoming HRW presence in Barcelona. For its part, Madrid would likely start drawing a strategy to counter a soon to start bad public relations campaign.

It would be hard for the central government to explain images of its police officers throwing elderly people down the stairs to stop them from voting or justify videos of security forces pulling civilians by the hair to keep them away from polling places. Consequently, HRW reporting on Catalonia will likely put Spain in the same category as some the unsavory regimes that were targets of the Spanish judiciary for human rights abuses.

It would be significant and helpful if HRW urges local Spanish NGO to defend the Catalans’ rights to promote independence if they chose to do so.  The Spanish civil society was extremely active in supporting independentism movements around the globe. It is but fair to ask these same groups to extend the same courtesy to the Catalans.

Although there are several specific cases of police brutality, political intimidation and freedom of expression violations making it easy for HRW to write its final report, the language and recommendations of the final document would be the issue to watch.

 Images of police brutality in Barcelona, Girona and other parts of Catalonia don’t lie. It is time for HRW to speak up clearly and forcefully on behalf of the besieged Catalans so they can express their views in peace. The whole world is watching HRW, Spain and Catalonia.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent any institution or entity. 

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