Barcelona Ombudsman’s Office Recommends Revoking Ties with Tel Aviv: a Historical Precedent Leading to Concrete Political Action

Published on Mon May 08 2023 - modified on Tue May 16 2023

In a ground-breaking resolution, the Office of Barcelona’s Ombudsman David Bondia recommended that the city revokes its Twinning Agreement with Tel Aviv over concerns about human rights violations committed by Israel against Palestinians. The Ombudsman’s report, released in December 2022, emphasised that maintaining links with Israel constituted complicity in the commission of the crime of apartheid against Palestinians, thus setting an historical precedent among European public institutions in the denunciation of Israel’s crimes. The Ombudsman’s Office recommendation, in conjunction with a petition initiated by over a hundred associations asking to take action against Israel’s crimes, pushed Mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau to suspend relations with Israel and all its institutions, including the Twinning Agreement with Tel Aviv, on February 8, 2023.

The Mayor of Barcelona’s decision to suspend ties with Israel comes after years of efforts to advance justice and human rights at the local level in Catalonia and in Spain. Earlier on 20 May 2021, the Barcelona Municipal Board for International Cooperation issued a declaration requesting the Barcelona City Council to end its Twinning Agreement with Tel Aviv. While recognising the City Council’s recent commitment to global justice and international cooperation to support the Palestinian people, the declaration urged the Council to intensify its efforts and pressure the Spanish government to place an embargo on arms sales to Israel. Additionally, it requested that the City Council exercise due diligence in its public procurement processes concerning human rights.

The Ombudsman’s Office resolution followed a complaint filed in February 2022 by a member of the Catalan coalitions “Prou Complicitat amb Israel” which promotes solidarity with the Palestinian people and denounce the complicity of governments, corporations and institutions with the Israeli occupation and apartheid, and “LaFede”, a coalition of Catalan NGOs. Joined by 105 organisations in Barcelona, the coalitions initiated the “Barcelona says NO to Apartheid, Barcelona says YES to Human Rights” campaign in 2021 urging the Barcelona City Council to terminate its Twinning Agreement with Tel Aviv.

The Barcelona Ombudsman is an independent authority designated by the Municipal Council to safeguard human rights in the city and oversee compliance by the Municipal Administration with the City’s human rights standards established in the European Charter for the Safeguarding of Human Rights in the City. Pursuant to his mandate, Barcelona’s Ombudsman recommended the suspension of the Twinning Agreement with Tel Aviv due to its infringement of the city’s commitment to promoting human rights and respect for international law. Its Office found that:

  1. The Agreement is politically obsolete and legally invalid. The Twinning Agreement was signed between Barcelona, Gaza and Tel Aviv in the context of the Oslo Peace Accords which established a framework for peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine. However, “the Oslo Process failed to achieve the “just, lasting and comprehensive” peace it promised” Bondia states. The failure of Oslo Accords led to a fundamental change in circumstances that entailed a radical change in the cities’ obligations and justified revoking the Agreement.
  2. Since the Oslo Accords, Israel has consistently violated international law and United Nations resolutions. The resolution lists many of Israel’s illegal practices against Palestinians, including the construction of illegal settlements, segregation policies, excessive force against protesters, administrative detention, denial of right of return, collective punishment, and the illegal blockade of Gaza causing widespread suffering.
  3. Through their request to the Ombudsman, the complainant and the organisations are lawfully exercising their right to freedom of expression and opinion on a matter of public interest, as defined by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Baldassi and Others v. France of 11 June 2020.
  4. Israel is committing the crime of Apartheid against the Palestinian people and action must be taken against it. Bondia cited Amnesty International’s most recent report on human rights violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The report finds that Israel’s policies towards Palestinians constitutes apartheid by establishing and maintaining a Jewish demographic hegemony while restricting the rights of Palestinians and preventing Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes, which must be addressed through action. The Ombudsman also recalled the Declaration of the Parliament of Catalonia of 16 June 2022 that publicly acknowledged the existence of a system of apartheid in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
  5. The resolution takes a step further arguing that by maintaining ties with Tel Aviv, Barcelona is indirectly supporting Israel’s violations of international law and perpetuating a system of oppression against Palestinians that hinders any progress towards a peaceful resolution to the occupation.

By taking a principled stance against Israeli human rights abuses, the Ombudsman’s Office sends a message that the international community cannot ignore the plight of the Palestinian people. This resolution also underscores the importance for States and public institutions not to be complicit with serious violations of international law and to hold States accountable for their unlawful actions. It is our hope that this resolution will encourage others to speak out against human rights abuses and support the Palestinian people in their struggle for freedom, justice and equality across borders.

Following the Ombudsman’s recommendation, Ada Colau officialised her decision to suspend institutional ties with Israel in a letter addressed to Benjamin Netanyahu. The Mayor said this decision was the necessary institutional response to the demands of over a hundred organisations based in Barcelona to act against the Israeli apartheid system.

“As Mayor of Barcelona, a Mediterranean city and defender of human rights, I cannot be indifferent to the systematic violation of the fundamental rights of the Palestinian population. It would be a severe mistake to apply a policy of double standards and turn a blind eye to a violation that has been, for decades, widely verified and documented by international organisations,” Ada Colau wrote in the letter to Netanyahu.

Barcelona’s Mayor has faced some backlash for taking a stand for international solidarity and justice, with a smear campaign initiated by pro-Israel groups and a lawsuit filed on 17 April 2023 by the Lawfare Project over her decision to sever Barcelona’s relations with Israel. The Lawfare Project is an American pro-Israel litigation fund that purports to defend civic rights of the Jewish community and fight discrimination through pro-bono legal support. The group has campaigned for the adoption of the highly controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. This resembles a renewed attempt at conflating criticism of the State of Israel and its policies with antisemitism, a misleading strategy used to silence opposition to Israel’s repeated violations of international law. It is worth noting that  Barcelona recently suspended relations with St Petersburg after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine over similar human rights concerns – the municipality has not faced legal action or similar backlash. Eventually, the Audiencia Nacional, a centralised jurisdiction competent to judge offenses committed outside of Spain [1], rejected the complaint filed against Colau. The Court considered itself incompetent and rejected the qualification of Colau’s decision to suspend Barcelona’s institutional relations with Israel as a crime.

Moreover, Ada Colau can count on the support of a large number of civil society groups in Palestine and around the world that advocate for Palestinian rights. Jewish Voice for Peace, for instance, stated: “We decry the accusations of antisemitism leveled against Mayor Colau and stand in solidarity with her and the local campaigners who brought about this historic decision”.

[1] The complainants argued that the decision of Colau could lead to crimes being committed outside of the Spanish territory against Jewish people.

Picture: Ada Colau at the Barcelona Municipality, CC Ajuntament Barcelona, 2017

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