Spain: Excessive and disproportionate use of police force

Spain: Excessive and disproportionate use of police force - Civic Space

Last Sunday, police forces in Catalonia engaged in excessive and disproportionate use of force against citizens taking part in the referendum of independence organized by the Catalan regional government, ruled unconstitutional by the judiciary. Spanish authorities must act immediately to conduct an impartial and exhaustive investigation on these events, and to ensure that they do not happen again.

In a statement published last week, ARTICLE 19 demanded that Spanish and Catalan authorities respect, guarantee and fulfil the rights to freedom of expression and to freedom of assembly of all persons, whether in favour or against Catalan independence. Last Sunday’s events add to a growing list of restrictions on these rights, and to the mounting political tension in Catalonia.

We remain convinced that strict respect for human rights is a necessary step towards finding a solution to the ongoing political conflict.  In view of this, we call on Spanish and Catalan authorities to take the following actions:

  • Spanish authorities have a positive duty to investigate the incidents of violence, mainly against peaceful demonstrators by police forces, which took place on 1 October 2017. If the degree of force used by the police is confirmed to be disproportionate, Spanish authorities must hold accountable those responsible for planning and executing operations that resulted in the use of force against peaceful protestors.
  • Pro-independence protests are likely to continue in the coming days. Spanish and Catalan authorities have a positive duty to ensure that police operations are planned and designed in a way that minimises the risk of confrontation, in accordance with international law. The deployment of anti-riot units against peaceful protestors is dangerous and unjustified. The role of police forces in demonstrations is to protect and facilitate the right to protest, not to confront or intimidate protestors.
  • The violent incidents of 1 October have increased political tensions between Spanish and Catalan authorities, as well as within Catalan society itself. This imposes an unprecedently high social and political cost onto anyone wishing to exercise their right to freedom of expression. Under international law, the role of public authorities is to create an enabling framework where individuals are free to express themselves. We call on Spanish and Catalan authorities to put an end to the current practices of confrontation, and to promote dialogue and tolerance.

Excessive and disproportionate use of force

On 27 September, the High Court of Justice of Catalonia issued an order to all police forces located in Catalonia. This order required police agents to block access to the polling stations where the secession referendum was to be held on Sunday 1 October, and to confiscate all ballot boxes.

To prevent this order from being effectively carried out, a large number of activists, sometimes accompanied by children, occupied several polling stations across Catalonia. In the early morning of 1 October they were joined by thousands of prospective voters. When police forces arrived, large numbers of peaceful protestors stopped them from gaining access to the ballot boxes. The subsequent violence against hundreds of peaceful demonstrators by police forces has been seen all around the world, while it was also reported that some tens of police officers were injured.

Under international law, law enforcement operations that restrict freedom of expression and assembly must comply with a threefold requirement of (1) legality, (2) legitimate aim, and (3) necessity and proportionality. International standards such as the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials,  Amnesty International’s guidelines on the implementation of the United Nation’s basic principles, and ARTICLE 19’s Right to Protest Principles provide guidance on how to comply with these obligations.

Under international law, states have a positive duty to design law enforcement operations in a way that minimises the risk of harm to citizens. International standards provide several guidelines on how to implement this obligation. In particular, ARTICLE 19’s Right to Protest Principles recommend that:

  • violent resistance by protesters should never be supposed in advance.
  • recourse to anti-riot units should be exceptional, as they have a significant potential for escalating confrontation.
  • violence should never be employed against peaceful protestors.

On 1 October in Barcelona and other locations in Catalonia, police authorities deployed anti-riot units to face peaceful protestors, including children. Anti-riot units equipped with kinetic projectiles such as rubber bullet guns, and chemical irritants such as pepper sprays, were deployed against protestors that engaged in passive resistance. Many witnesses attest that, in the Ramon Llull state school in Barcelona, rubber bullet guns were used to disperse peaceful protestors. One protestor was seriously injured in the eye. In the Pau Claris state school, also in Barcelona, several protestors were pulled down the stairs by the hair, and kicked by police officers even when they did not resist. In the small town of Aiguaviva (province of Girona) an anti-riot unit of the National Police used pepper spray against a group of peaceful protestors.

These actions taken by police forces last Sunday in Catalonia were dangerous, excessive and disproportionate, and they are not compatible with international law. Police authorities failed to recognize that non-intervention can be the most appropriate approach when other options involve the use of violence.

Respecting human rights law will be crucial in the coming days 

In a statement published on 29 September, ARTICLE 19 underscored that, in addition to being an obligation under international law, strict human rights compliance is also good policy. It will contribute to the de-escalation of tension in Catalonia, and to constructing a solution to the ongoing political conflict.

Last Sunday’s disproportionate use of force not only represented a breach of international standards, but dramatically increased the political division within Catalonia and Spain, heightening the risk of further violations of fundamental rights. Fulfilling international human rights law obligations will be crucial to break this dynamic. In particular:

  • Spanish authorities must initiate an impartial, in-depth investigation on the disproportionate use of force by police officers on Sunday 1 October 2017. This investigation should seek to see whether excessive force was employed, and to hold accountable those responsible for planning and executing these actions.
  • In the coming days more protests are going to take place. Authorities in charge of police forces must ensure that law enforcement operations are designed and executed with the aim of minimising the risk of harm to protestors. Anti-riot units should be deployed only in exceptional circumstances and following a full risk assessment, including the risk that they prove counter-productive to de-escalation of conflicts. Furthermore, no one should be criminally prosecuted, or threatened to be prosecuted, for taking part in peaceful demonstrations, including spontaneous demonstrations against the abuse of force by police authorities.
  • In a 29 September 2017 statement ARTICLE 19 denounced that several pro-referendum websites owned by particulars and private organizations had been blocked in order to prevent the referendum from taking place. Many of these websites, including the site of the political organization, continue to be blocked, even though the date of the unilateral referendum has passed. These blocking measures constitute an instance of censorship of political speech. They must be revoked.

ARTICLE 19 calls on the Spanish and Catalan authorities to engage in dialogue and tolerance. The respect for freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and the right to protest will be a first step in this direction.