Congress must prioritize human rights and democratic values in 2019
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Every two years we inaugurate a new Congressional session, and as we start anew there comes a new opportunity to make a difference -- to lead America in a new and better direction. I urge Congress, as it starts its new session, to do so on an international scale and recommit our nation to protecting human rights across the globe, specifically in Catalonia.

Why focus on Catalonia, you may ask? I’m often presented with the difficult task of trying to contextualize and explain the complex and fast-changing story of Catalonia to our American friends and colleagues. The information making the trans-Atlantic jump to the U.S. is sporadic, which prevents many in the States from understanding the severity of an increasingly worrisome situation, complete with politically-driven arrests, detentions, exile, censorship and hunger strikes.

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The best analogy that helps unpack this story is a jigsaw puzzle. For well-informed Americans who broadly take in news from across the globe, each puzzle piece represents an individual story of incarceration, of harassment, of a crackdown on expression or assembly. But it’s difficult to see the entire picture, the completed puzzle. Rather, observers see a series of what are imagined to be isolated or rare incidents.

Now, many have already seen some of the obvious pieces. Let’s call them corner pieces. For those following politics and international relations, Catalonia was very much on the radar in 2017 because of the independence referendum held that year. Declared illegal by Spain, government authorities sent more than 10,000 national and militarized police to stop the vote from moving forward. If observers were paying attention to this event, they also saw the scenes of violence perpetrated by security forces on unarmed civilians. This is the first corner piece.

Maybe observers are also aware that five members of Catalonia’s previously-elected government and two of Catalonia’s most prominent civil society leaders are incarcerated and awaiting trial in detention. They are charged with armed rebellion, which legal experts - including those who do not share the defendants’ political position - view as totally unfounded. Especially attentive observers will recognize that not only are former government leaders in jail, but the former president of the Catalan parliament is also incarcerated, in her case for allowing debate on the question of Catalonia’s political future in parliament. Let’s call these the second and third corner pieces.

Finally, a further five members of Catalonia’s former government are currently living in exile across Europe. They live freely and openly in Belgium, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, as no authorities outside of Spain have heeded the  Spanish justice system’s requests to return these officials to face rebellion and sedition charges. This is the final corner piece.

Spain’s crackdown on basic freedoms is not limited to the question of Catalonia’s referendum, however. Diverse international rights organizations (including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the World Organisation Against Torture) as well as international organizations (including the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe and the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of expression and opinion) have condemned the abuse of pre-trial detention and counter-terrorism legislation, as well as increased restrictions on freedom of expression (including internet freedom) and peaceful assembly, to name just a few. Indeed, a recent report found that Spain incarcerates more artists than any country in the world.

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Some of these cases relate to well-known personalities, but they also involve everyday citizens. They’re activists, teachers, artists and even clowns (yes, clowns) who have been arrested for their peaceful dissent. Some are charged with crimes such as rebellion and sedition, others with support for terrorism or through hate crimes legislation (in these cases quite literally turning the intent of the legislation on its head). Some charges go forward, others are eventually dropped. They send the message regardless. These are the middle pieces of our puzzle.

Here in the United States the first amendment protects speech, encouraging debate rather than proscribing dissent. If this same principle was applied in Catalonia, incarcerated and exiled political and civil society leaders would be able to seek negotiated solutions to what are imminently political questions. Instead they languish in jail or exile.

Congress should therefore encourage the State Department to communicate its concern to the government of Spain regarding the restrictions of basic rights, as well as calling for an end to the prosecution of Catalan political and civil society leaders. They should encourage the Spanish government to prioritize dialogue to address what is inherently a political dispute. 

Congress should also demand that the State Department reassess its annual human rights assessment of Spain, which is woefully incongruent with the numerous reports filed by international bodies and NGOs over the last few years on issues related to pre-trial detention, abuse of counter-terrorism legislation, freedom of expression, internet freedom, peaceful assembly and the freedom to participate in the political process, among others.

We believe that it is possible to support alliances and collaboration while pushing allies to correct unjust practices or policies. Silence is generally understood as support (or toleration) for these policies, and for this reason Congress should speak up on human rights. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s in the national interest.

Andrew Davis is Executive Director of the Catalonia America Council. From 2008 until 2017, he served as Head of the Delegation of the Government of Catalonia to the United States, Canada and Mexico. He was previously Adjunct Professor at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and Research Fellow at the European Institute of the London School of Economics, and served as a member of the Board of Directors of the Ateneu Barcelonès. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Nottingham (UK) and a Master's degree in International Relations from Johns Hopkins SAIS.