Thursday, March 13, 2014

Spain. Why Transparency when you can have Opacity instead?

Spain has been in the last few months the star in a number of cases that have highlighted the difficulties in abandoning a traditional culture of secrecy and embracing the kind of transparency and freedom of information that we associate with democracies. It started in September 2013 with the announcement that the the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances
 would look at the measures taken by Spain and “analyze in particular issues related to truth, justice, reparation and memory for victims of enforced disappearances.”

The announcement came the day after an Argentinean judge issued international arrest warrants for four former mid-level officers who are accused of torturing Spaniards during the later years of Franco’s dictatorship. The Buenos Aires court opened an investigation into the crimes based on the universal justice doctrine after the victims and their families filed a lawsuit in 2010.

In October 2013, the spanish conservative government was rebuked by the UN Panel: "UN envoys Jasminka Dzumhur and Ariel Dulitzky informed Spain’s government that it should “take on its responsibility” and draw up “a national plan to search for the missing,” revoke the 1977 Amnesty Law and pave the way for cases of forced disappearance to be judged in the courts. The UN group reminded Spain that such crimes have no statute of limitations and called for the state to meet its “international obligations,” and to carry through to court the 114,000 counts of forced disappearance listed in suspended High Court Judge Baltasar Garzón’s 2008 universal justice suit. The envoys expressed disappointment that no such investigation is currently underway and that judges habitually decline to visit mass graves when informed of their discovery. They also insisted that Spain provide “every legal assistance” to investigations which are opened in other countries, such as has recently been the case in Argentina, and to embrace the concept of universal justice; Spain restricted its own judicial remit solely to cases involving Spanish nationals in 2009. The search for those who were arrested and executed by the Franco regime should not be seen as “a task to be carried out by families but an obligation of the Spanish state,” the envoys concluded. As a starting point, the UN recommended adopting Gárzon’s proposal that “the greatest institutional and financial aid” be afforded to the families of victims. Dzumhur and Dulitzky also noted that the level of official support depends entirely on which party is governing a region. The experts visited Madrid, Catalonia, Andalusia and the Basque Country and found that in some “the authorities assume responsibility for exhumations” while in others they are “completely oblivious” to the matter. In the same vein, the envoys criticized the “resistance” at institutional level over declassifying certain documents and the obstacles thrown up when families attempt to access essential information. “It depends entirely on the will of the individual public employee; we propose a law governing access to information that guarantees the right to know the truth.”

Far from moving in this direction, the spanish government moved to impulse in February 2014 a swift legal reform that limited the power of spanish judges to pursue human right violations beyond the spanish border based on the concept of Universal Justice: "Spain's MPs voted on Tuesday to push forward with a bill that limits the power of Spanish judges to pursue criminal cases outside the country, a move that human rights organisations said would end Spain's leading role as an enforcer of international justice. Last month, the ruling People's party (PP) tabled a fast-track legal change to curb the use of universal jurisdiction, a provision in international law that allows judges to try cases of human rights abuses committed in other countries. Since being adopted into Spanish law nearly two decades ago, the doctrine has allowed Spanish judges to reach beyond their borders and investigate serious human rights abuses in countries such as Argentina, Rwanda and Guatemala."

To complete this dismal panorama, the government blocked in Parliament the initiative to open the access to the historical archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (that have been subjected to security classification since 2010) and military files from 1936 to 1968 which are still classified

This has led "El Pais" to speak about "Why Top Secret in Spain is forever": "British historians have had their chance to stick their noses into what were once the most top secret records from the Falklands War (1982). The latest disclosure was a ream of private papers kept by the recently deceased former prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, which reveals dissent among Conservatives over the war. But Spanish historians are not allowed the slightest peek at documents pertaining to significantly older military conflicts, such as the Ifni conflict (1957-58) or the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). All this classified information is still kept under lock and key in military archives, where access is intermittent and arbitrary. Former Defense Minister Carme Chacón, of the Socialist Party, tried to partly redress this lack of transparency by proposing to declassify 10,000 records of events that took place between 1936 and 1968, and which no longer posed a threat to the security of the state. These included documents about concentration camps and work battalions created by the Franco regime right after winning the Civil War; government policy on the Spanish protectorate in Morocco; projects for weapons manufacturing prior to 1968; operations in the former Spanish province of Sidi Ifni in North Africa; and finding crews for Italian and German war ships at Spanish ports during WWII. But her initiative never reached the Cabinet. General elections held in November 2011 handed power over to the conservative Popular Party (PP), although sources in the former Defense Ministry team say that "internal work was already completed" before that, and that the delay getting the project approved was just a problem of "scheduling." This timid attempt at greater historical transparency dissolved completely under the current Popular Party government."

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