Case 06

Prohibition of yellow

When yellow ribbons become acts of political defiance

Yellow ribbons, indeed, any yellow objects or lighting, were interpreted as having a party political significance, in the context of the regional elections of the 21 December 2017, and began to be banned and persecuted. Yellow lighting was even censured in the famous Monjuïc Fountains, one of Barcelona’s touristic hotspots.


The very day the chairs of the pro-independence grassroots organizations “Òmnium Cultural” and “Assemblea Nacional Catalana” were arrested in Madrid (16/10/2017) and held in pre-trial detention without bail, popular protests began throughout Catalonia and the colour yellow was chosen to symbolize the protest. However, once the 21st December 2017 regional elections were called by the Spanish government (that had previously suspended the political autonomy of Catalonia), Spanish authorities began to ban the use of yellow ribbons, yellow garments and even the use of yellow lighting on public buildings or property. 


No Spanish law says that organizing, holding or taking part in a referendum is illegal. Moreover, the Catalan people claim that international law and, indeed, Spain, accept the right of self-determination of peoples (Art. 1, ICESCR and ICCPR). 

This and the fact that the whole independence process has been scrupulously public (with a 700-page White Paper on National Transition, and clear electoral campaign manifestoes and Roadmaps) has given rise to a great feeling of outrage on account of the pre-trial detentions of civic associations‘ leaders. Indeed, international courts seem to strengthen the view that charges of rebellion (which require a violent uprising) are trumped-up. 

Yellow ribbons (from Tony Orlando and Dawn’s popular 1973 hit ‘Tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree’) are a way for citizens to express their protest.


The outcome

Right across the country not only did hundreds of thousands begin to wear yellow ribbons on their clothes, but others wore yellow garments. The largest (yellow) scarf in the world was knitted by hundreds of enthusiasts, and was unfurled in one of many rallies and events calling for the freedom of the two social leaders, who were soon joined in pre-trial arrest by a number of politicians, while others fled into exile. At the time of writing this, there are sixteen politicians and activists in pre-trial detention or awaiting the result of European Search Warrants in Scotland, Belgium, Germany (and of an extradition request) in Switzerland. They include the former Catalan President, Mr. Carles Puigdemont, and the former Speaker, Ms. Carme Forcadell.

Bridges and road-side fences have likewise been adorned with thousands of ribbons. Soon, however, squads of those opposed to Catalonia’s independence, encouraged by calls from Spanish right-wing politicians such as Albert Rivera, began to organise sorties to remove these ribbons. Such actions were often conducted under the cover of night with the participants wearing balaclavas and there are many filmed instances of violent behaviour. Individuals were seen threatening people with knives and even physically assaulting neighbours.

The last violation of the right to use this symbol has come from the Spanish Central Electoral Board, who enforced the Catalan government to take away yellow ribbons from all public buildingsCatalan authorities that disobeyed this order are now facing legal charges, such as being banned from public office. 

After an initial court appearance of Catalan President Quim Torra in mid-May, it was generally thought that the row would be resolved with Catalonia’s High Court of Justice throwing out the charges. Yet the court’s decision not to do so has opened up the possibility of the president finding himself in the dock for defying an official ruling, and the possibility that he will be banned from public office.

In his court appearence, President Torra told the court “”Yes, I disobeyed, because I owe a debt to a higher public mandate to defend human rights.”

A week later, on 12 July 2019, The High Court of Justice of Catalonia (TSJC) decreed that Catalan president Quim Torra will be put on trial for disobedience, for not having withdrawn the yellow ribbons and the symbols in favour of the political prisoners from the Catalan government palace and other official buildings, as required by the Central Electoral Commission (JEC).

The public prosecution is demanding a ban on holding public office sentence for 1 year and 8 months for the alleged offence, while the private prosecution, ultra right party Vox, asks for a two year ban for the Catalan president.


Violated rights

Freedom of speech.

  • Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice”.
  • Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) amends this by stating that the exercise of these rights carries “special duties and responsibilities” and may “therefore be subject to certain restrictions” when necessary “[f]or respect of the rights or reputation of others” or “[f]or the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals”.
  • Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights provides the right to freedom of expression, subject to certain restrictions that are “in accordance with law” and “necessary in a democratic society”. This right includes the freedom to hold opinions, and to receive and impart information and ideas, but allows restrictions for interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, prevention of disorder or crime, protection of health or morals, protection of the reputation or the rights of others, preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.
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