Spain will undergo a human rights review before the Human Rights Council (HRC) at the UN’s Geneva HQ on Wednesday . This is known as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and it is conducted every five years by the UN in order to gauge to what extent member states are upholding human rights. It will be the third time that Spain’s compliance record will be measured against international standards and, at any rate, it will be several months before an official report is published.

The Spanish government will be represented by a delegation that will take questions and address doubts from the forty-seven members of the HRC. The assessors have been given information by other UN bodies, the Spanish government itself and civil society organisations. The latter have submitted so-called shadow reports, which were only introduced a few years ago. In the past only reports from the state under review were taken into consideration.

Among other cases, the HRC will be looking into the violations of the Catalan leaders’ rights by Spain’s justice system. Censure by international human rights groups of the trial held in Spain’s Supreme Court, such as the reports published by and International Trial Watch, will be evaluated in a broader context at the UPR.

Spain gets a damning report

One of the groups that have submitted their views on the matter is Catalonia’s Institut de Drets Humans [Human Rights Institute or IDHC in Catalan] working as part of a joint platform with a further eight associations from across Spain: Defensar qui Defensa [“Defending the Defence”]. This group has published a thirteen-page long report (here in Spanish) about basic rights violations in Spain and will be hosting a panel debate this week with four experts who will discuss the limits imposed on the freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly and their effects on the people’s protests.

The report —written by Defensar qui Defensa— records violations of basic rights and includes proposals for legal, political and judicial reforms that would put an end to them. The report pays special attention to Spain’s Citizens’ Security Law (also known as the “gag law”), as well as to the recent criminal code changes that trample on basic rights and allow the authorities to clamp down on protestors. The report also denounces the fact that Spain did nothing to stop the legal changes that have brought a regression in terms of civil and political rights. Instead, Spain approved them and went on to curb those rights even further.

Speaking for this newspaper, IDHC president David Bondia stated that the UPR will likely discuss a wider range of violations beyond those connected with the trials against Catalonia’s independence leaders. This will be only one of the issues under review: poverty in Spain and the authorities’ failure to comply with the indications outlined in the 2015 UPR will also be examined.

Furthermore, David Bondia warns about the outcome of the review and the political interests that exist within the Human Rights Council: “Unlike with other procedures to do with human rights committees formed by experts, the Human Rights Council is made up of states. It will tread carefully in its conclusions. We can expect only countries who are on less friendly terms with Spain to voice any criticism”.

Non-binding recommendations

Once it has assessed any human rights violations that might have been recorded, the UN’s Human Rights Council will issue a number of recommendations for Spain. The Spanish government is under no obligation to accept them but, if they did, they would have to agree to take the necessary steps to adopt them.

On the subject of the previous UPR report on Spain, Defensar qui Defensa has called out the Spanish authorities for ignoring most of the recommendations made in 2015. The report included 189 such suggestions and Defensar qui Defensa claims that “they have ignored most of them, so the situation is noticeably worse now”.

Spain’s blatant disregard

As for to the judicial action taken in the wake of Catalonia’s independence bid, Spain has blatantly disregarded the recommendations issued by UN bodies, something which will be brought up before the HRC during the review. Spain’s courts of law have ignored the judgements of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which urged Spain to release the political prisoners. Likewise, they have paid no heed to the request to refrain from charging the defendants with the crime of rebellion and the plea to respect Jordi Sànchez’s political rights when he was standing for president of Catalonia.

In March 2018 Jordi Sànchez lodged an appeal with the UN’s Human Rights Council following Spain’s Supreme Court refusal to allow Sànchez to be present in the Catalan parliament when a vote was tabled for him to be elected president. Jordi Sànchez held the second slot in Carles Puigdemont’s slate and was the back-up candidate once the exiled Catalan president failed to be voted in on January 30. The former Catalan National Assembly (ANC) leader demanded that Spain be urged to respect his political rights as a precautionary measure, which the HRC agreed to in a judgement. Nevertheless, Spain chose to ignore it.

In April 2018, David Kaye, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, asked Spain not to charge the Catalan leaders with the crime of rebellion. Still, his request went unheeded and the defendants were tried for rebellion, even if their conviction was ultimately for a crime of sedition.

In May and July 2019 the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention —which reports to the HRC— issued two rulings demanding the immediate release of Oriol Junqueras, Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart (on May 29) and of Raül Romeva, Dolors Bassa, Joaquim Forn and Josep Rull (on July 4). Both judgements stated that their imprisonment was arbitrary. Spain went on to ignore both rulings —they were not legally binding— and the prisoners remained in jail. This snub to the UN will contribute to a future appeal by their defence with the European Court of Human Rights.

Human Rights violations in Spain

During a preparatory session held on December 10 with the member states of the HRC that will conduct the UPR, several NGOs voiced their concern about human rights violations in Spain. At a press conference representatives of international civil society groups went over the reports they had submitted so that they would be taken into consideration ahead of Wednesday’s review.