Spain cracks down on judicial human rights activism

The Spanish Parliament has voted to press ahead with a bill which will limit the ability of Spanish judges to pursue human rights cases outside the country.

The Spanish Parliament has voted to press ahead with a bill which will restrict the ability of Spanish judges to pursue international human rights cases.

The move has been criticised by human rights organisations, who said that it will end the leading role which Spain has taken on in enforcing international justice.

One of the most prominent international legal cases initiated by a Spanish judge was that of the former Chilean dictator General Pinochet, who was arrested in London in 1998 after an arrest warrant was issued by Judge Baltasar Garzón.

Pinochet was sent back to Chile in 2000 after it was ruled that he was unfit to stand trial, but his arrest represented a landmark moment in international justice as it raised the possibility that other former dictators and human rights abusers could be brought to trial. It also paved the way for the removal of his immunity in Chile and the prosecution case against him there.

Spanish judges have also pursued cases of human rights abuses in Argentina, El Salvador, Guatemala, Chad and Rwanda, as well as high profile cases against the US over Guantanamo Bay and Israel over a bomb attack on Gaza in 2002.

However, the proposed change, which will restrict the use of universal jurisdiction (the provision in international law which enables judges to pursue human rights violations committed in other countries), will make it much harder for Spanish judges to take on cases like these.

According to legal experts, the change will mean that universal jurisdiction will only apply if the defendant is Spanish or a Spanish resident, and that only public prosecutors or victims will be able to bring cases.

It would appear that the Spanish government has introduced the proposed change after pressure from China. A Spanish court recently ordered Interpol to issue arrest warrants for former Chinese President Jiang Zemin and four other senior Chinese officials over alleged human rights abuses committed by Chinese authorities in Tibet.

However, once the change is introduced, these cases against Chinese officials will be dropped. This comes as Spain is trying to develop its trade links with China in an attempt to revive its crisis-hit economy.

The change could also be seen as part of Spain’s right-wing direction of travel under its current government. The ruling right-wing People’s Party were elected in 2011 in a landslide victory, but have become increasingly unpopular amid corruption scandals and the on-going economic crisis.

Unable to deliver its policy of tax cuts, due to pressure from Brussels to balance the country’s budget, it would appear that the government is pursuing socially conservative policies in an attempt to appease its right-wing support base.

In addition to the attempt to stop judges pursuing international human rights cases, the government is introducing legislation to restrict abortion rights, which will implement some of the strictest abortion rules in Europe as well as a law to impose harsher penalties for unauthorized street protests.

Some aspects of Spain’s situation contain echoes of the run-up to the Spanish Civil War. In 2012, a Spanish colonel was quoted as saying that he was willing to sacrifice his life to preserve the country’s territorial integrity, and that the secession of any of Spain’s regions (such as the Basque region or Catalonia) would take place ‘over my dead body’.

In Catalonia the movement for independence from Spain is growing in confidence. Spain’s prime minister Mariano Rajoy says he will go to the country’s Constitutional Tribunal to prevent any attempts by Catalonia to hold a referendum on independence; but despite this Catalonia’s president Artur Mas still intends to go ahead with a planned referendum in November.

Republican sentiments are also on the rise, as Spain’s royal family has become embroiled in a corruption scandal which has exposed their wealthy lifestyle at a time when millions of ordinary Spaniards are suffering in the economic crisis.

The flag of the short-lived Spanish Republic (which was defeated by Franco at the end of the Spanish Civil War) is now a common sight on left-wing demonstrations.

The attempt to obstruct the human rights activism of judges should therefore be seen as part of an increasing polarisation of Spanish society whereby a right-wing government is pursuing increasingly authoritarian measures in an attempt to crack down on left-wing protest movements and demands for autonomy.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.