Spain violated rights of Catalan ex-ministers: UN committee

Spain violated the political rights of former members of the Catalan government and parliament, the UN's Human Rights Committee found Wednesday.

Spain violated rights of Catalan ex-ministers: UN committee
Demonstrators waving Catalan pro-independence "Estelada" flags gather in Barcelona in 2021. Photo: Josep LAGO/AFP

The committee reviewed a complaint from four senior politicians who were convicted of sedition for their role in a controversial Catalonian independence bid in 2017.

The committee found that Spain violated their rights when they were suspended from office having been charged with a particular offence — in a decision not based on reasonable and objective grounds.

Catalonia in northeast Spain has for several years been at the centre of a political crisis between separatists, who control the executive and the regional parliament, and the central government in Madrid.

The Human Rights Committee comprises 18 independent experts who monitor how countries are implementing their civil and political rights obligations under an international covenant.

The committee reviewed a complaint filed by the former deputy head of the Catalan government Oriol Junqueras, and three former ministers: Josep Rull, Raul Romeva and Jordi Turull.

They were prosecuted and sentenced for their participation in the independence referendum and later events that led to the Catalan parliament declaring independence in October 2017.

Junqueras and the three ministers were prosecuted for the crime of rebellion, which entails a call for a violent uprising against the constitutional order, said the committee.

In July 2018, they were suspended from their functions as members of parliament in accordance with an act which only allows the suspension of officials when they are charged with rebellion.

They claimed that their suspension from public duties, prior to any conviction, violated their political rights under the international covenant monitored by the committee.

In 2019 they were eventually convicted of sedition, which, as opposed to rebellion, does not include the element of violence, and their suspensions were lifted.

They were pardoned in June 2021 by Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s government in a bid to draw a line under past clashes with Catalonia’s separatist-led regional government and open the way for talks.

‘Slap in the face’ 

“The safeguards against the restrictions of political rights must be applied more rigorously if these restrictions occur prior to, rather than after, a conviction for an offence,” said committee member Helene Tigroudja.

Noting that the complainants had urged the public to remain strictly peaceful, they considered that charging them with rebellion, leading to their automatic suspension, “was not foreseeable and therefore not based on
reasonable and objective grounds provided for by law”.

Tigroudja added: “The decision to suspend elected officials should rely on clear and foreseeable laws which establish reasonable and objective grounds for the restriction of the political rights.

“Such an approach and safeguards are the best way to ensure respect for institutions and to promote the rule of law in a democratic society.”

In a tweet, Junqueras said the committee’s ruling “proves us right”.

“Spain can’t continue it’s repressive practices against the independence movement,” he added.

Carles Puigdemont, who headed Catalonia’s regional government at the time of the 2017 independence push, said the ruling was a “slap in the face of the Spanish state from the United Nations”.

“An EU member state is a violator of political rights, and this is a real threat to European democracy,” he added in a tweet.

Puigdemont fled to Belgium after Catalonia’s failed independence bid.

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EXPLAINED: What is Spain’s anti-trafficking law?

The Spanish government has passed a draft bill that seeks to beef up the fight against human trafficking and exploitation, addressing everything from prostitution to arranged marriages and organ trafficking.

EXPLAINED: What is Spain’s anti-trafficking law?

On November 29th, Spain’s Council of Ministers approved a draft law aimed at tackling human trafficking.

The law, known as la ley de trata (or anti-trafficking law) will bolster measures against sexual exploitation, forced and arranged marriages, slavery, forced labour, organ and tissue removal, and situations where vulnerable people are forced to engage in criminal activity.

Spain’s Justice Minister, Pilar Llop, said that the law will protect “people who suffer a lot in our country and also in other countries around the world,” strengthening the fight against trafficking mafias and organised crime groups to “break the business chain that is generated using human beings as commodities.”

The law will, among other things, create a national plan for the prevention of trafficking, protection and privacy protocols, a compensation fund for victims, social, health and financial support, and increase awareness of the problem at the educational level.

A particular focus of the legislation will be on minors, migrants, asylum seekers and refugees – groups thought to be most vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking.

Prostitution in Spain

Many cases of human trafficking in Spain result in sexual exploitation, but there exists no single law that deals directly with prostitution in Spain. Prostitution was decriminalised in 1995, though its related activities, such as pimping, trafficking, and sexual exploitation are still illegal.

READ ALSO: What’s the law on prostitution in Spain?

Although the clandestine nature of the sex work makes accurate data hard to find, according to a 2011 UN report, Spain is the third biggest centre for prostitution in the world, behind only Thailand and Puerto Rico.

In 2016, UNAIDS estimated that over 70,000 prostitutes were working in Spain, but some estimates put that number as high 350,000.

It is believed that 80 percent of them are foreigners, with many reportedly coming from Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Morocco and eastern Europe.

If the draft law is finally approved, its sexual exploitation clauses would include prison sentences of up to eight years for procurers such as pimps or madams.

Customers of prostitutes that have been forced to be sexual workers could also face fines and prison sentences of between six months and four years.

The Spanish government wants prostitution banned in its current form in Spain.

Forced labour

Clearly, the ley de trata will hope to combat some of the sexual exploitation of women in Spain, but the anti-trafficking legislation is more far-reaching than that and is also intended to tackle forced labour and slavery – two big but underreported problems in Spain.

According to the U.S State Department’s 2022 report on human trafficking in Spain, “labour trafficking is under-identified in Spain. Authorities report the pandemic increased worker vulnerabilities and contributed to the rise in labour trafficking in 2020 and 2021, especially in agriculture, domestic work, and cannabis cultivation in Catalonia.”

“In 2022, Ukrainian refugees, predominantly women and children fleeing Russia’s war against Ukraine, are vulnerable to trafficking. Labour traffickers continue to exploit men and women from Eastern Europe and South and East Asia, particularly Pakistan, in the textile, construction, industrial, beauty, elder care facilities, and retail sectors.”

It should be said, however, that the report also notes that “the government of Spain fully meets the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking” and kept it in its Tier 1 of nations.

What does Spain’s anti-trafficking law include?

  • National Trafficking Plan

The law will create a protocol to coordinate the immediate referral of trafficked persons to specialised services, which will be overseen by a National Rapporteur on Trafficking and Exploitation of Human Beings run through Spain’s Interior Ministry, according to the Spanish government website.

The rapporteur will oversee anti-trafficking policy and represent Spain in the international arena, a role considered crucial as human trafficking is often a cross border, international problem.

  • Education

According to Article 7 of the law, efforts will also be made to improve educational awareness of the problems of trafficking and exploitation with a focus on human rights, sexual education, and democratic values.

  • Social, labour, and health support

A ‘Social and Labour Insertion Plan’ will be created for victims of trafficking and exploitation that provides social, health and employment support for victims.

This could include housing access, physical, psychological and sexual health support, employment opportunities, and financial assistance for victims and their family members.

  • Tightening labour market regulation

As trafficked and exploited people are so often brought in from abroad (and often dependent on the traffickers themselves for housing, food, money and so on) the regulation of migrant worker recruitment will be tightened through beefed up surveillance and labour standards.

  • Compensation fund

A compensation fund – the Fund for the Compensation of Victims of Trafficking and Exploitation (FIVTE) – will also be created, and will be taken from state budgets, as well as money or goods confiscated from convicted traffickers.

  • Protection and privacy

The anti-trafficking law will also provide protection services and maintain the victim’s right to privacy, protect their identity, access to free legal advice and even offer a living income.

According to Article 36 of the bill, victims trafficked from abroad will have the right to voluntary and assisted return to their country of origin. If they were brought illegally into Spain and don’t have official documentation, the Spanish government will issue them with the appropriate papers needed for travel as well as provide them with the option of residency.