United Nations Human Rights Committee condemns Spain’s repression of the Catalan independence movement

The United Nations Human Rights Committee today published its decision on the complaint made on 18 December 2018 by Oriol Junqueras, Raül Romeva, Josep Rull and Jordi Turull against Spain (case 3297/2019). The Committee considers that Spain has breached the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966 by suspending the four Catalan independence party leaders as members of the Catalan Parliament. The decision by this key international body regarding the oversight of compliance with international human rights treaties represents fresh proof that the political repression of the Catalan independence movement by Spain has gravely violated human rights, in this case, the political rights essential to a democracy.

The proceedings

The present proceedings were initiated by members of the Catalan Parliament Oriol Junqueras, Raül Romeva, Josep Rull and Jordi Turull in individual complaints before the Human Rights Committee on 18 December, 2018. All four were, and continue to be, political leaders of different pro-independence political parties who led a peaceful campaign for the independence of Catalonia based on the right to self-determination of peoples that culminated in the referendum on 1st October, 2017. In addition, all of them were members of Catalonia’s Generalitat Government before the Spanish government dissolved President Carles Puigdemont’s executive on 27 October, 2017 in application of article 155 of the Spanish Constitution.

The four plaintiffs had been under criminal investigation since October 30, 2017 for the alleged crime of violent “rebellion” arising from the 1st October referendum. They were taken into pre-trial detention on November 2, 2017 and were held in custody until 14 October, 2019 when they were sentenced by the Spanish Supreme Court to prison terms of between 9 and 13 years – Messrs Romeva, Rull and Turull were provisionally released for a short period of time, between 4 December 2017 and 23 March 2018, when they were returned to prison. Pretrial detention was declared arbitrary and in violation of international human rights law by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in two findings of May 27 and July 10, 2019. As established by the Working Group in 2020, Spain did not comply with the decisions, they were not released, nor was there legal redress for the violation of rights, as required by the 2019 findings.

In the 21 December 2017 elections, all four candidates were re-elected to the Catalan Parliament with the two pro-independence parties that won most seats. However, the investigating judge in July 2018 ruled they were to lose their seats, before there was any trial or conviction. Later, in October 2019, the Spanish Supreme Court sentenced them to long prison terms and disqualified them from public office for an alleged crime of “sedition,” despite the fact that their peaceful acts did not meet the requirement of “tumultuous uprising.”

In 2021 the four plaintiffs received a conditional and limited pardon for their prison sentences, but they remain disqualified from exercising public office since the pardon did not entail recognition of the injustice of pre-trial detention or the sentence. However, the 2019 conviction has not been touched upon in the present proceedings, which began earlier and has focused exclusively on denouncing the breach of political rights.

The Committee’s decision

In its findings, the UN Human Rights Committee considers that the suspension of all rights and duties of parliamentary representation constituted a violation of internationally recognized human rights, in particular article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right of all citizens to be elected to public office. The committee emphasizes that this right “constitutes the essence of democratic government” and, although it recognizes that there may be certain limitations to this right, it considers that the grave restriction imposed by the Spanish judiciary was clearly unjustified.

In particular, the Committee considers that “the decision to charge the plaintiffs with the crime of rebellion that automatically resulted in their suspension from their public functions prior to a criminal conviction” violates the requirements of the Covenant; in particular, these restrictions on the exercise of public representative functions must be based on legislative provisions “that are reasonable and objective.” The decision emphasizes that for “suspensions from public functions imposed prior to the existence of a conviction, the standards necessary for the compatibility of these suspensions with the Covenant would, in principle, be stricter than those applied after the existence of a conviction” and points out that “various national and international bodies have highlighted the peaceful nature of the actions undertaken by the plaitiffs and by other political and social leaders in Catalonia.” Given this, “an application of domestic law that automatically results in the suspension of elected officials, for alleged crimes that are based on public and peaceful action, prior to the existence of a conviction, precludes an individualized analysis of the proportionality of the measure and can therefore not be considered to meet the requirements of reasonableness and objectivity.”

For this reason, the Committee “finds that the information before it reveals a violation of article 25 of the Covenant.” According to the Committee, in this case, its opinion on the merits of the claim constitutes sufficient reparation. However, it emphasizes that “the State party [Spain] is also under an obligation to take all necessary measures to prevent similar violations from occurring in the future.” In this regard, it requires the State to provide within 180 days information on the measures it has taken to implement the decision and guarantee non-recurrence. Spain is also asked “to publish the Committee’s Views and to make them widely available.”

The context

With this decision, the Committee follows the conclusions of other courts and international bodies in the assessment of the repressive measures taken by Spain against members of the Catalan independence movement. The aforementioned decision of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention of 2019 found that pre-trial detention was arbitrary and violated various human rights, including the right to personal liberty, freedom of expression and assembly. Several special rapporteurs of the United Nations have expressed great concern about the violations of human rights through actions against pro-independence activists. Germany’s Oberlandesgericht Schleswig decided in 2018 that Spain’s petition for the extradition of Catalonia’s president-in-exile Carles Puigdemont had to be rejected, since German law does no hold peaceful political acts to be unlawful and considers them part of the respect for civil rights. Other European courts in Belgium and Scotland, have also rejected requests for extradition of other exiles linked to the Catalan independence movement. In 2021, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe asked Spain to study the possibility of releasing the activists and politicians imprisoned at that time, and to study the abandonment of the requests for extradition of the exiles and to eliminate the remaining proceedings regarding activities related to the peaceful referendum. It also asked Spain to reform the criminal provisions on rebellion and sedition so that they cannot be interpreted as criminalizing the organization of a referendum or repressing the exercise of fundamental rights. As the Assembly’s Special Rapporteur pointed out this year, Spain has failed to comply with most of these recommendations.


Despite these decisions and requests, thousands of criminal cases against pro-independence politicians and activists are still pending and the Spanish justice system continues to press forward with the extradition proceedings of the exiles. The Spanish judicial system remains heavily politicized, despite many international calls for reform, and continues to apply strategies of lawfare using criminal law extensively to prosecute opposition activists and politicians. This misuse of the rule of law violates fundamental human rights, both individual and collective, and subverts the foundations of democracy.

The Human Rights Committee is the most reputable treaty monitoring body within the United Nations system and has been described as “the closest thing to an International Court of Human Rights.” Today’s decision reinforces the international condemnation of Spain for the severe repression against Catalan independence. It confirms that, in accordance with international human rights law, Spain is obliged to cease its repressive policies and that it cannot continue to use the law and criminal procedures to deal with the peaceful claims to the right to self-determination of the Catalan people and the right to parliamentary representation and participation in acts of peaceful protest.

The Committee’s ruling (in Spanish) may be downloaded via: