GENEVA (28 September 2017) – UN experts* have called on the Spanish authorities to ensure that measures taken ahead of the Catalan referendum on 1 October do not interfere with the fundamental rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association, and public participation.

The Catalan government has scheduled a referendum on independence for the autonomous region for 1 October. However, the Constitutional Court of Spain decided on 6 September that the referendum would be unconstitutional.

“Regardless of the lawfulness of the referendum, the Spanish authorities have a responsibility to respect those rights that are essential to democratic societies,” the experts said.

Since the ruling, hundreds of thousands of Catalans have taken to the streets in protests.  Tensions have escalated, with the authorities searching print houses and seizing referendum material. Websites have been blocked, and political meetings stopped.

Politicians have been arrested, and leaders of the mass protests have been charged with sedition, a crime which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years imprisonment.

“The measures we are witnessing are worrying because they appear to violate fundamental individual rights, cutting off public information and the possibility of debate at a critical moment for Spain’s democracy.”

On 21 September, more than 4,000 police officers were deployed to the autonomous region, with an order from the Government to “act in case the illegal referendum takes place”.

“We are concerned that this order and the accompanying rhetoric may heighten tensions and social unrest,” the experts said.

“We urge all parties to exercise the utmost restraint and avoid violence of any kind to ensure peaceful protests in the coming days”, they concluded.

The experts have been in contact with the government of Spain concerning the situation.


(*) The experts: Mr. David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and Mr. Alfred de ZayasIndependent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

Spain must respect fundamental rights in response to Catalan referendum, UN rights experts