We like to think of Western European nations and the European Union as entities that uphold the fundamental rights of humanity and democracy. We grow up thinking that in Western Europe, the people are able to decide their government and their governments will protect them and their unalienable rights as humans. Yet, as events unfolded in the autumn of 2017 in the constitutional monarchy of the Kingdom of Spain, the democratic rights of some Spanish citizens were taken away and punished because they challenged the “unity” of the Spanish Kingdom. The right to peacefully assemble, the right to freedom of expression, and of course the fundamental human right to self-determination all of a sudden became the enemy of a Western European democracy, and all to the silence of many democracies around the world.
Who were the repressed Spanish citizens you may ask? They were the Catalans of the autonomous community of Catalonia.
The Catalans are a nation in the Northeastern part of Spain who have a separate language, land, government, flag, history, and culture. The Catalan people, since being put under Spanish rule, have fought endlessly for more autonomy and some have sought the right to be an independent nation. But, as with all democratic societies, pluralism exists, “for democracy requires pluralism” (Muller, “What is Populism” 3), and thus there are plenty of Catalans or people of other ethnic groups that are from Catalonia who wish to stay under the Kingdom of Spain which is a great choice too. Yet, with all these disagreements in this magnificent region, there is an overwhelmingly supported path for Catalonia that almost all Catalans want, and that is the opportunity to hold a free and fair referendum, guaranteed to them as a fundamental right by the United Nations.
And this is where the issue of democratic erosion comes into play. The fact that Catalonia is not independent has nothing to do with democratic erosion as it would be wrong to presume that a majority of the people in Catalonia would vote to leave Spain. Rather, it is the lack of a vote for self-determination that has caused democratic erosion. The vote is needed to see whether the Catalans want to stay with Spain or leave which is their right as a nation. The United Nations has dictated this rule numerous of times in different binding charters and declarations. The United Nations International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights signed and ratified by the Kingdom of Spain states in Part 1 Article 1 Section 1 that “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” Furthermore, the Charter of the United Nations, also specifies that the purpose of the United Nations is “To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples” (Article 1 Section 2).
But, what does this have to do with Spain and democracy? Well, according to Article 25 of the United Nations Charter, all United Nations members “agree to carry out and accept the decisions of the Security Council in accordance with the present Charter.” And, the Spanish Constitution specifies in Article 10 Section 2 of their constitution that “The principles relating to the fundamental rights and liberties recognized by the Constitution shall be interpreted in conformity with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the international treaties and agreements thereon ratified by Spain.” And Article 96 Section 1 states that international treatise “once officially published in Spain, shall form part of the internal legal order.” Thus, it seems pretty clear that under both United Nation’s law, which Spain is bound to follow, and under the Spanish constitution which states that international treaties ratified by Spain shall be part of Spanish law, that Spain is legally responsible to hold a vote of self-determination for the Catalan people. It is hard to imagine that anymore evidence in needed to show a country where democracy is eroding, then one which does not follow its own laws in order to suppress the opposition from voting. Yet, there is more evidence of erosion.
Without the approval of the Spanish government to hold a referendum vote, the Catalans decided to hold their own which was deemed illegal and illegitimate by the centralized Spanish government. This vote happened on October 1, 2017, and 92% of the participants voted to leave to establish an independent Catalonia. Although the 92% in favor of leaving seems to suggest that a majority of Catalans want to leave Spain, the important thing to remember is that only 43% of Catalans participated for numerous of reasons, one of them being safety. This is where the other aspect of democratic erosion comes into play. The United Nations Charter (Articles 19 and 20), the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights (Articles 11 and 12), and the Spanish Constitution (Articles 20 and 21) all clearly state that citizens must have the right to peacefully assemble and have freedom of expression without interference. Yet, citizens right to freedom of expression were being suppressed as 1.5 million referendum leaflets and posters were seized by the central government. A further 10 million ballot papers were confiscated, along with the seizing of ballot boxes at polling stations. And on top of all that, the government also cracked down on voters as a reported 893 people were injured as riot police stormed polling stations and fired rubber bullets into the crowd, all to deter their right to assemble and express an opinion on a piece of paper. As world-famous Manchester City Football Club manager and a Catalan himself, Pep Guardiola, stated in the aftermath of the violence, “There are more than 700 hurt – people who were going to vote, not rob a bank.”
And to make matters worse, it was not only individuals who were having their rights taken away, but so too were the press. Newspaper companies, printing companies and private mail services were all searched by the Spanish authorities, and the Catalan top court issued a warning to top newspaper companies not to publish referendum campaign notices.
But the climax probably had to be when the Spanish authorities began calling for the arrest of their fierce Catalan political opponents, and took control of their autonomous government, only to allow it to be autonomous once again after new elections in December.
Therefore, the Spanish government suppressed freedom of expression, called for the arrest of political opponents, denied their citizens a fundamental right of humanity and in doing so, used acts of violence and force to suppress these very freedoms in order to silence their opponents. The result is a prime example of democratic erosion happening in a region where democracy is often welcomed.
So what can the Spanish government do to uphold their duty of being a democratic and humane nation? It is simple. The Kingdom of Spain needs to follow their own constitution and allow the people of Catalonia to hold a vote of self-determination. If they do not, they will continue to suppress democracy, and given the history of the Spanish government’s relationship to the Catalan people, who knows where this erosion of democracy could lead. Let us just hope it does not lead to another Franco!
Photo by David Ramos/Huffington Post UK, Creative Commons Zero license.