Opinion: Illegal referendum or not, police violence is still police violence

4 mins read

By Marina Dokken

This Sunday, Catalans voted on their independence from Spain. The referendum has been, and continues to be, controversial. Its legality has been challenged, and in early September it was suspended by the Spanish government . This complexity has been reflected in the international response to the referendum, with for example UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson pointing out in a tweet how important it is “that [the] Spanish constitution [is] respected [and] the rule of law upheld”. However, international governments seem painfully neglectful of the excessive use of violence by Spanish police during the voting. Upon writing, the number of people who have needed medical care following the vote is approaching 900. When did police violence shift from an issue in itself to a factor in a political disagreement?

There was always little doubt that the Catalonian referendum would be opposed. The process began on September 6th, when the Catalonian parliament passed a controversial law in favour of an independence referendum. The next day the law was suspended due to claims of illegality by the Constitutional Court, acting on the request of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. These claims seem legitimate, though they arguably point to a disturbing centralized scale of power in the 1978 Spanish constitution, which states that Spain simply cannot be broken up. That this in effect means that Catalonia — a region with its own parliament, language, flag and rich resources — can never legally discuss separation from Spain, seems flagrantly undemocratic. Nevertheless, the Spanish claim of illegality was all it took for the EU to declare this an internal affair, in which the international community should not interfere. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, has said that Brussels must abide by the decision of the Spanish Court and Spain’s constitutional court. Similarly, Norway has explicitly not condemned the use of police violence, and Germany and Canada have both stressed the importance of dialogue between the two sides. Several other countries have taken stances of varying strength, with Belgium determinedly condemning the use of violence and Venezuela taking the side of the Catalonians. The overwhelming reaction, however, has been a disturbing silence.

There are arguments to be made for both sides of the conflict. The referendum was undoubtedly illegal, as the Spanish government was quick to point out after its initiation. Furthermore, the rigid declarations by Catalan President Carles Puigdemont that the referendum, if in favor of independence, was to be put into effect within two days helped escalate the situation. Still, it is difficult to see any real chance of a political dialogue among the Catalan people, with a constitution working so blatantly against them and a Spanish government unwilling to discuss the subject. The sad truth is that without the controversy and drama that has grown out of the referendum it is unlikely that it would have caused any international reaction, nor gain the acknowledgement of the Spanish government. However, these are all matters of politics, technical details and parts of a larger ideological debate. They can be discussed, and there is no predetermined right or wrong, nor any clear answer. But that is not true for the referendum as a whole, and the surrounding factors paint a very disturbing picture.

On Saturday, the police began the work of shutting down the referendum vote. They closed several of the 2000 voting booths and confiscated propaganda material, even opening mail to look for flyers and other promotional material. When the vote nevertheless was initiated the next day, the civil guard began storming polling stations, among them the one where President Puigdemont intended to make his vote. Heightened tension was channeled into what can only be described as an excessive use of violence. Videos circulating on social media in the days that followed show women, children and elderly being beaten with batons, thrown down stairs, dragged across streets and crammed together in tight rooms. There are numbers saying that approximately 900 people have been injured, but these have been criticised given that they include minor complaints, such as anxiety attacks. Nevertheless, the sheer massiveness of this number and the simple fact that this began peacefully without the Catalan people initiating violences — as several of the aforementioned videos show — make these criticisms difficult to take seriously. Moreover, massive confiscations of voting ballots and the shutdown of polling stations shows a glaring denial of the basic civil right of voting. The Spanish government has accused the initiators of the referendum of “trampling on democracy”, but considering Sunday’s events this seems to go both ways.

The referendum’s main issue can be seen by looking at the statistics. While only 41% of Catalans want independence, according to a public survey commissioned by the Catalan government earlier this year. Still, approximately 75% of the Catalan population wanted a referendum about the matter. For a region that is highly autonomous and self-sufficient, the wish for a voice in matters concerning itself seems legitimate and understandable. Regardless, the intention of this article is not to make an argument for or against independence — it is to point out that people were attacked by those meant to protect them. It is to dismiss the image the Spanish government is trying to create of this being a violent and illegal riot. It is to point out that in all the gray areas of the situation, the use of violence by the police force is as black and white as it gets. Because we as international citizens, and as human beings, have the right and the responsibility to speak out when people are deprived of their rights to safety and free speech.

It may be tempting for the international community to dive into the complex politics of this situation, thereby avoiding the responsibility they have to condemn these breaches of basic human rights. But we cannot let them.


Marina Dokken is a psychology student, and previously studied modern diplomatic European history at the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. She has been active with Amnesty International Norway and believes that books and dialogue can make the world a better place. 


The Uppsala Association of International Affairs is politically independent. Views expressed in articles published by us reflect the opinions of their writers and should not be interpreted as the views of the Association of International Affairs or Uttryck’s editorial board. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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