3 May, 2024 @ 21:40
3 mins read

UN experts blast rightwing ‘harmony’ laws in Spain for ‘whitewashing’ the Franco era

The legacy of Franco's dictatorship is a controversial political subject

EXPERTS from the United Nations have warned that so-called ‘harmony’ laws proposed by right-wing regional governments in Spain amount to the ‘whitewashing’ of the Franco dictatorship and could breach international human rights standards. 

Local governments led by the conservative Partido Popular (PP) and far-right Vox in Aragon, Castilla y Leon, and Valencia, have been accused by the Spanish government of attempting to ‘whitewash Francoism and rewrite history’ by downplaying or justifying the horrors of General Franco’s dictatorship which commanded Spain from 1936 to 1975.

Critics of the ‘harmony’ laws claim that the proposed legislation would thwart public historical memory projects, gloss over serious human rights violations, and ‘suppress many historical memory associations and activities’.

The legacy of the dictatorship of General Franco, who seized power in the Spanish Civil War by leading a coup d’etat against the legitimately elected Republican government, has long proved to be a deeply polarising and toxic battleground within Spanish politics.

Just two years ago, Pedro Sanchez’s socialist government approved the Democratic Memory law which intended to bring ‘justice, reparation and dignity’ to the victims of Franco’s fascist forces by introducing a national DNA database to identify thousands of remains in unmarked, communal graves, banning groups that glorify Franco’s regime, and re-defining the highly controversial Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), a basilica built by Franco to celebrate the war, as Valle de Cuelgamuros.

READ MORE: Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez makes surprise visit to exhumation site at infamous Civil War monument in Madrid

Spain starts exhuming remains from Franco era mausoleum near Madrid
The Valle de los Caídos, a basilica buily by General Franco to celebrate the Spanish Civil War, has been re-purposed under Spanish law. Credit: Cordon Press

Previous legislation introduced by the PSOE government also led to Franco’s remains being exhumed from the site in 2019 and reinterred at Mingorrubio Cemetery in El Pardo following a lengthy legal process.

Now, a letter signed by three key UN officials has sounded the alarm over the potentially damaging effects of the ‘harmony’ laws proposed by right-wing coalitions across Spain.

Signed by Fabian Salvioli, the special rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice and reparation, Aua Balde, the chair of the working group on enforced or involuntary disappearances, and Morris Tidball-Binz, the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, the letter said the proposed laws could ‘affect the Spanish state’s obligations when it comes to human rights, especially its obligation to guarantee the preservation of historical memory on serious human rights violations’. 

They added: “We would urge the Spanish government to take all the necessary measures to guarantee the strict respect for international standards governing the preservation of historical memory on serious human rights violations”.

The Spanish government has confirmed that it will fight the introduction of the laws before the constitutional court, the UN, the EU parliament and the Council of Europe.

READ MORE: Almost 100 victims of Spain’s dark Franco era are discovered in Granada: Remains show signs of torture and bullet wounds to the head

Santiago Abascal
Far-right Vox are in coalition with the Partido Popular in regional governments across Spain. Credit: Cordon Press

The UN trio said the law would also ‘render the serious human rights violations committed during the Franco dictatorship invisible’ and reminded Spain that it had a duty to victims of forced disappearances.

They added that the law in Castilla y Leon did not use the word ‘dictatorship’ and did not explicitly condemn human rights violations carried out by the Francoist state, whilst legislation put forward by Franco-friendly Vox in Valencia disregarded the victims of the violence of the civil war and dictatorship by blanketly referring to ‘all victims of social, political and terrorist violence and of ideological and religious persecution’.

“Not investigating and trying these violations is in itself a failure to fulfill the rules set out in human rights treaties. Impunity over such violations can be an important factor in the repetition of those violations”, they added.

A government spokesman said: “The fact that the rapporteurs and working groups have signed a joint letter shows how serious these violations are”.

Emilio Silva, president of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, said: “The harmony laws are an attempt to whitewash Francoism and praise the dictatorship, which represents an act of aggression against its victims”.

However, the UN letter was criticised by Aragon’s PP regional president, Jorge Azcon, who called the report a ‘lie’ and that it ‘leaves the UN in a poor place’.

Likewise, Juan Garcia-Gallardo, the Vox vice-president for Castilla y Leon, said: “From the outset, you need to ask who these rapporteurs are, what they know about Spanish legislation and what they know about the real content of these laws, because what we’ve seen in the press displays a lot of misunderstanding”. 

Ben Pawlowski

Ben joined the Olive Press in January 2024 after a four-month stint teaching English in Paraguay. He loves the adrenaline rush of a breaking news story and the tireless work required to uncover an eye-opening exclusive. He is currently based in Barcelona from where he covers the city, the wider Catalunya region, and the north of Spain. Send tips to [email protected]

1 Comment

  1. The constant attempt to rewrite and sanitise the past may not be such a good thing for Spain . It leads to continued conflict . It is also highly interwoven with national and regional politics

    The socialists started it with the Historical Memory and more recent Democratic Memory Laws prohibiting expressions of public support for the Franco regime . The exhumation of the bodies of Franco and Primero de Rivera and the re naming of the valley of the fallen were seen as provocative acts by many . They were met by church services remembering the dead of the civil war advertised by pictures of both men on posters and the occasion on which an army captain ordered his troops to kneel for a blessing at the newly named valley of Cuelgamuros . At regional level disputes have arisen over the removal of Franco era monuments like that commemorating the battle of the Ebro in the river at Tortosa and the large stone cross at Elche . Are such moves going to be any more effective than the American obsession with melting down statutes of confederate generals in the hope of expunging the memory of slavery in the South and punishing ghosts ?

    The interplay between central and regional government is a further exacerbating factor, when the two are in different party political hands ; Spain has so large a measure of devolved government . It was the move by the newly elected Partito Popular in Andalucia to abolish wealth tax which caused the socialist government to bring one in at a national level . This present spat has started the other way round as the right leaning autonomies of Castilla y Leon , Valencia and Aragon react , to the socialist central government’s attempt to purge Franco’s memory , by introducing their own new harmony law . I don’t think that the socialists need any encouragement from the UN to counter attack .

    If the wounds of Spain are ever to heal then surely this endless legislative battle should stop. Neither side can be proud of their record between 1936 and 1939 and indeed earlier. The imposition of new laws either way , exhumations and destruction or renaming of monuments will not bring back the dead nor reconcile deep divisions. Probably nothing other than the passing of time will and the case for leaving things alone may have much to recommend it . After all the echoes of the American Civil war are now almost silent and nobody cares much in England if your family was Cavalier or Roundhead . Leave it be.

    Location : Cadiz province

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