Nicolas Levrat: ‘Spain has violated its human rights commitments’

  • The international law expert hopes for a change in Europe and the European institutions regarding the Catalan case

Andreu Barnils
20.03.2018 - 14:00
Actualització: 20.03.2018 - 14:14

The offices of the United Nations in Geneva have become the capital of Catalonia’s human and civil rights for some days this week. After the screening of the documentary “Catalogne: l’Espagne au bord de la crise de nerfs” (“Catalonia: Spain at the edge of a nervous crisis”) and before the debate on Catalonia’s current political situation organised by the Human Rights Film Festival (FIFDH), VilaWeb interviewed Nicolas Levrat, professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of Geneva and director of the Global Studies Institute. He will be the doctoral thesis tutor of Anna Gabriel, a Catalan politician recently exiled in Switzerland.

-Have you seen the documentary? What do you think about it?
-I think it’s a very neutral movie. It criticises both positions, which is partly correct as I think there have been mistakes on both sides. It doesn’t really take side, it’s quite accurate and it allows everyone to form their own opinion, also those who did not know much about the situation. It’s quite factual.

-I understand that you have followed the Catalan case for a while. How do you think that we have come to the present situation?
-It’s a very good question and there are many factors of course. Madrid refused to enter a serious negotiation on the evolution of the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia. There was an attempt to revise the statute, which was accepted, and then the Constitutional Court cut it down and all that. But I think there was room for some negotiation and sooner or later there will be. There is no other way. I do not believe Madrid -and when I say Madrid I do not speak of the current government, but of the Spanish population as a whole- can impose its will on Catalans. Neither can Catalans impose their will on the whole Spanish population. Basically, you have two democratic legitimacies, probably on different sides but it’s not even certain, maybe if Catalans were to organise a proper vote they would vote to remain in Spain, I don’t know. Even if they want to leave, then you need to have a negotiation process, so sooner or later there will be a negotiation. It would have been better to do it before all this spectacular drama. We see that the situation is bad because in the previous election there was the same result on the relationship between Barcelona and Madrid. I hope at some point serious negotiation will start.

-After interviewing some Europeans, I have come to the conclusion that in Europe people don’t understand that Catalans broke the law, nor that the Spanish government sends politicians to prison.
– Not only politicians, also representatives from civil society, which in my opinion is even worse! Not that I do not defend politicians, they also benefit from human rights. It’s possible that some laws were broken, whether they were legitimate or not is another matter, but in any case they were broken by those who were in charge, the politicians. I don’t think they should be sent to jail, but they can be prosecuted and let’s see what a judge says. I know there is a debate about the independence of the judiciary. Now, people from civil society, who only expressed their opinion, which was not illegal… There is absolutely no justification to keep them jailed. It is a latent violation of human rights.

-What pressure can people put on the Spanish government? I mean, they are in jail and will continue captive. Why should the judge or the Spanish government set them free?
-In the current world there are national laws and constitutional laws, but all European states abide also to values ​​and principles like the European conventions and human rights treaties. There is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights approved by the United Nations in 1966. These are treaties that Spain has signed. Somehow, by keeping them in jail, Spain has violated its human rights commitments. At some point there will be a process that will clarify it, but this demands a lot of time, because you have to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Anyway, these are clearly unacceptable facts. On the other hand, some laws were broken, but it’s difficult because there is also the right of self-determination. No country in the world has provision in its national laws of the right of self-determination. It’s a difficult case: people invoke a right recognized by international law, which states recognize, but at the same time don’t want to implement it because it puts at risk their existence.

-Do you think this question will stay open for a long time?
-Personally, I hope that at some point there will be some evolution in Europe and the European institutions. In some way, EU members are not genuinely sovereign as we understood it in the 20th century. Things have changed and I hope that Europeans together will be smart enough to deal with these issues. If you look at the EU Treaty, the first article talks about a “union among the peoples of Europe”, not among the states but among its citizens. And yes, Catalans are people, the Basques are people, Galicians are people, the Flemings are people, Scots are people… So I hope that at some point we will be smart enough to find a solution.


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