The end of violence in the Basque Country

Brian Currin
International Human Rights Lawyer specializing in Peace Process Facilitation
Brian Currin

Brian Currin

ETA's historic public statement on 20 October in response to the Declaration from the International Peace Conference in Donostia – San Sebastian on 17 October, declaring a definitive cessation of its armed activity, brought to a successful end a three year conflict transformation process.

The predetermined objective of this process, which was spearheaded by the political leadership of Abertzale Left, was to achieve a paradigm shift from political violence to exclusively peaceful means as a way of expressing and achieving political objectives.

Getting to a point where an organisation, classified by its own government and by the international community as a terrorist organisation, moves unconditionally and unilaterally from violence to irreversible non violence is unique when compared with other armed political struggles.

There are many factors which contributed towards this outcome, and there equally as many perspectives. These range from the extreme opposite views of defeat and destruction of ETA by Madrid's security forces, to the strategic end of the armed phase of a struggle that has victoriously achieved its objectives. Reality, as we know, is always far more varied, complex and nuanced.

This article does not enable an extensive analysis of the many factors that contributed towards ETA's uniquely unconditional and unilateral cessation of armed struggle.

From my perspective the main factors were:

  • The realization amongst Batasuna leaders that their prohibition from participation in democratic politics was undermining their political cause of self determination;
  • A willingness to listen and respond to the demands from their constituency to conceptualize a new political project;
  • An acceptance by Batasuna's top leadership that the only viable new political project would be legalization, and a willingness to give robust leadership to do whatever necessary to achieve legalization;
  • The deep and wide consultation undertaken by Batasuna leaders amongst their entire constituency to explain and motivate the need for a political commitment to exclusively peaceful means that would be irreversible, irrespective of how unpopular that message might be to hard line elements within their constituency;
  • Batasuna leadership's ability to engage and collaborate with social and political groups in the Basque Country with which there had previously been very little trust;
  • The social rejection of violence by a significant part of Basque society;
  • The involvement of the international community and in particular ETA's ceasefire commitment to the signatories of the Brussels Declaration;
  • And, finally the success of Bildu in the 2011 March elections.

The support for Bildu in March this year was an incontrovertible message from the pro-independence Basque society of their endorsement for democratic politics above violent political conflict. My assessment then was that ETA would absorb the message and in a relatively short time take the next inevitable step from ceasefire to irreversible cessation of violence, which would remove the final obstacle to the legalization of SORTU and pave the way for a transparent, inclusive and sustainable peace process in the Basque Country.

This is precisely where things are at the moment.

The next challenge is how to consolidate peace. To do that, it is necessary to first identify the future political and social challenges. Before attempting that, I must record that I do not claim to be an expert on Spanish and Basque socio-politics. So please accept these comments from an outsider looking in.

Broadly speaking, there appear to be three main political challenges, immediate, short to medium term and medium to long term. The declaration emerging from the International Peace Conference on 17 October recognizes these challenges.

The Spanish and the French Governments are called upon to respond positively to ETA's statement declaring a definitive end to its armed activity and to agree to talks exclusively to deal with the consequences of violence. This is a critical step in order to begin essential processes to bring closure to decades of violence. The consequences of the violence, which are many and varied, cannot simply be left to resolve themselves. They are of such a nature that cooperation between the protagonists is necessary.

ETA has ended its armed activity, but inevitably the organisation must still possess dangerous weapons and explosives. Decommissioning requires a cooperative process. What happens to ETA leaders who are on the run, who declared the end to armed activity and who will lead the decommissioning process from their side? Issues such as indemnity from prosecution and amnesty need to be discussed. There are more than 500 politically motivated prisoners dispersed in various parts of Spain and France. Their return to the Basque Country and the release of at least some categories of prisoners needs to be carefully managed. The extraordinary and stringent security laws, which are inappropriate in a normalized political environment, should be dismantled.

The short to medium term political challenge is to create an all inclusive forum for dialogue (multi party talks) between all the political parties in the Basque Country to confront the causes of the political conflict and negotiate resolutions.

The political product of these negotiations will inform the nature and extent of subsequent political engagement with the Spanish government.

Socially, it seems to me that the most pressing and daunting challenge is reconciliation. In Spain and in the Basque Country, the divisions are deep and entrenched. They did not begin with the formation of ETA in the early 1950s. In modern history they go back to the internecine Spanish civil war.

There are international models of reconciliation processes which may be instructive. But each country is unique, not only in relation to its conflict but also its national character, traditions, culture, religion etc.

Two other key social challenges to be addressed if peace and reconciliation are to be entrenched are the recognition of all the victims and social reintegration of prisoners.

In recognizing victims, processes and mechanisms should be put in place to assist victims to deal with their loss, pain and suffering, bearing in mind that the peace process itself may, paradoxically, for many victims be an aggravating factor.

The number of prisoners and the length of sentences served in a country that has experienced political violence is often disproportionate. The end of violence invariably results in greater numbers of released prisoners, many of whom are long-term. Prison conditions are often worse for prisoners associated with terrorism and rehabilitation programmes are non existent. As a result social reintegration of politically motivated prisoners is always a complex challenge. The current economic realities in Europe, particularly unemployment rates, will not make it easier.