Much Work Ahead for Spain in Facing the Ghosts of the Past


The situation in Spain is paradoxical. While Spain is a consolidated democracy, it has largely failed to address the many crimes of the Civil War era and Franco periods. There have been significant and deep reforms to the military, which is an important step indeed and a key element in the move to democracy. Nonetheless, Spain has otherwise largely ignored the calls of victims to begin to address the crimes of the past and has consistently failed to deal with the long-term legacy of serious human rights abuses. Thus, the country and its democratic institutions exist side by side with long-term impunity and the deep wounds that linger between different sides of the conflict which now has an inter-generational character.

Indeed, in Spain, the nature of the “transition” itself has been contested, and significant questions about the overall process remain. As Pablo de Greiff, the UN Special Rapporteur for Truth, Justice, Reparations and Guarantees of Non-recurrence, aptly noted in his report to the United Nations on Spain in July, the country has experienced “a consolidation of a robust and stable democracy.” However, he also found a yawning gap between the view of most state institutions — which hold that the claims of the victims have been met — and the victims themselves — who “feel insufficiently recognized and compensated.” It is clear that the victims and society at large have seen a very limited amount of truth, justice, or reparations in response to abuses of the Civil War and the dictatorship periods that followed.

This conclusion is underlined by ongoing public discussion on truth and memory that has emerged with renewed force over the past decade, after a long interval when little heed was given to these matters. Establishing the facts, identifying victims and perpetrators, explaining the enabling context, and assessing the nature and gravity of the harms are an end in themselves. This is because they are linked to the distinct rights of the victims — the right to know, the right to the truth — and because acknowledging the past is a good starting point for future institutional and social transformations.

While much time has passed since these abuses occurred, there remain a number of steps and processes that can be undertaken to address the injuries that victims have suffered and respect their rights. The Special Rapporteur has set out some of these considerations in his report to the UN General Assembly, which provides a full account of these very useful recommendations. In particular, information related to enforced disappearances in Spain is sorely missing due to a lack of investigations, which undermines victims’ right to know and the right to truth.

One step forward would be to ensure that all victims are covered by the Preliminary Bill for an Organic Act on the Status of Victims of Crime as well as addressing issues related to the amnesty law to bring it into line with current international law. I would also join the Special Rapporteur’s call to broaden the laws that provide for reparations and compensation to include all victims. It is particularly important to ensure that the impact of violations committed against women is fully addressed. Other steps include annulling the sentences handed down during the Civil War and dictatorship periods, which would be important symbolic redress for victims.

There are a number of further steps that should be considered. These include the removal of symbols and monuments that glorify the military’s role in the Civil War and Franco periods, strengthening education on the Civil War and dictatorship periods, the establishment of institutions of historical memory, and broadening access to archives. Exhumations can also play, and have played, an important role for victims and must be facilitated by the state.

Transitional justice is often seen as exclusively related to and relevant for societies emerging from social and political turmoil (armed conflict, authoritarianism, harsh repression of insurgent groups)—societies where peace and democracy are tasks to be achieved in the near future through broad institutional reforms aimed first and foremost at reestablishing the rule of law and leaving behind unstable or arbitrary state power. Nevertheless, it must be emphasized that even when a democracy is consolidated, as the Spanish democracy is, it can always be improved on to make it more inclusive and more respectful of international law and its own founding principles.

Knowing the truth, paying respect to victims, responding to the expectations and just claims of survivors are part of the civic dialogue that can strengthen democracies like Spain’s and make them more legitimate, more enduring, and more stable. A democracy can always be made more inclusive through the expansion of its legal and institutional capabilities to protect the rights of ever-more citizens, including rights related to a troubled, long-ago but never forgotten past. A society can always become more just — a good in and of itself — and more transformative through an enlightened and critical examination of its own traumatic past.

Those are challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for Spain. I remain hopeful that these important issues will be addressed in new and creative ways in the near future.

Originally published on the Huffington Post. Read Tolbert's September 30th address in Barcelona here

Photo: A member of the Historic Memory Association shows a list with some of the names of 130, 000 people who went missing during Spain's civil war at the entrance of the National Court, in Madrid, Monday, Sept. 22, 2008. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)