Spain: Resolving The Basque Conflict – OpEd
The Spanish government should immediately establish contacts with ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna); not because it owes ETA anything, but because Basque society wants the irreversibility of the end of violence to be guaranteed through the disarmament and dismantling of ETA’s structures.
The process is irreversible
The main errors made in the 2006 peace process were identified: the Abertzale Left was banned and ETA’s cessation of violence was not definitive. The first made transparent and real dialogue difficult, and the second created an atmosphere of tension and mistrust. In 2011, therefore, two essential conditions for an irreversible peace process were in place: the definitive end to violence and the legalisation of Sortu. Following the Spanish Constitutional Court’s decision, both conditions have been achieved, thereby ensuring a situation in which all political sectors can participate in the country’s political life on the same terms.
- ETA’s violence – this autumn marks three years since ETA last committed a planned attack. In January, two years will have passed since it announced its decision not to commit offensive armed actions, and October 20th will be the first anniversary of the definitive end of violence. Furthermore, the group has not resorted to extortion through the so-called ‘revolutionary tax’ for the last two years. These objective facts, together with information from the Interior Ministry and an International Verification Commission, confirm that ETA is maintaining its commitment to the end of violence. Indeed, everything points to the possibility that it is willing to take steps forward in a process of disarmament and the dismantling of its structures.
- The government’s position – the Spanish Government refuses to make any kind of contact with ETA and maintains a position based on strategies from the past, threatening further banning of political parties or not modifying prison policy at all. Nevertheless, it is true that it has not taken any decision that could jeopardise the process, such as outlawing Bildu or Sortu or arresting leaders of the Abertzale Left. This situation is revealing one of the main elements blocking progress: whereas ETA demands that contacts be started in order to enter a phase of disarmament, dismantling of its apparatus and reinsertion, the Government calls for the organisation’s dissolution before any changes to prison policy can be made.
- Political dialogue – the forthcoming elections have made political dialogue more difficult. All the parties are aware that the Basque elections have a constituent nature because the new government and parliament will have the responsibility of leading and driving the peace process. The early election is an opportunity because it will clarify the political scene and that the pending challenges can be taken on from November onwards. There is another advantage here: the fact that all the political sectors will be represented in the new parliament.
- The reconciliation of society – where most progress has been seen is in the process of social reconciliation. There is a perception that social and political consensus is being reached on the following issues: the recognition of responsibility for what has happened over the years, recognition of all the victims, a will to humanise prison policy and the need to preserve collective memory. Less tension and aggressiveness is also being seen in the messages of this election campaign.
Proposal. Changing the focus: society is the protagonist of the peace process
Over the last few months it has become very clear where the Gordian knot of the peace process lies. In order to make progress towards disarmament and the dismantling of its structure, ETA is calling on the government to start a series of contacts. Meanwhile, the government is demanding the dissolution of ETA as a condition for changing prison policy. For their part, the political parties are now right in the middle of an election campaign, which is making it more difficult to create wide-ranging and inclusive consensuses.
In this context the risk is that the peace process could get bogged down, without any progress in the process to ensure the end of violence, without changes in prison policy, and without opportunities for dialogue and consensus among all the parties. In the light of this, Lokarri proposes a change of paradigm to advance in the peace progress.
Basque society is the protagonist in this peace process
The focus needs to change in the peace process, placing it on Basque society. We propose that all the institutions and stakeholders involved should decide their strategy and contribution to the peace process bearing in mind what Basque society wants in order to deal with the past, manage the present, and build the future.
If we shift the focus to Basque society:
- The Government should start contacts with ETA, not because it owes ETA anything but because Basque society wants the irreversibility of the end of violence to be guaranteed through the disarmament and dismantling of ETA’s structure.
- ETA should take steps towards its disarmament and dissolution, not because the government is demanding it but because society needs this to happen to be completely sure that violence has disappeared as an obstacle to harmonious co-existence.
- The prisoners should acknowledge the harm done, not because the law requires this in order to be entitled to prison benefits, but for society to know that, once they have been released, they will make a firm and committed effort to consolidate peace.
There are opportunities for a wide-ranging consensus
The institutions and political parties should set up processes of dialogue and agreement without waiting to see what ETA or the Government do, because Basque society needs these consensuses to create an inclusive co-existence. Great opportunities exist for agreement on the path towards the consolidation of the peace process.
Regardless of other issues that separate us, there are five main themes on which there is considerable consensus among the political parties and Basque society as a whole:
- 1. The rejection of violence.
- 2. Support for the start of contacts between ETA and the Government merely aimed at guaranteeing a definitive end to violence.
- 3. The end to the dispersion of prisoners. The only difference is when to do this: before or after the dissolution of ETA?
- 4. The recognition of all the victims of violence and a commitment to preserve the memory of what has happened over the years.
- 5. A commitment to dialogue to structure co-existence.
Major developments in the last three months
Below we describe the major developments that have occurred in July, August and September this year.
I. Human Rights
1. Definitive cessation of armed activity by ETA
On July 10th, ETA issued a communiqué in which it stated that it had increased its efforts to open up channels for dialogue over the previous few months, “creating closer ties with international stakeholders and making adaptations internally required by the process”, and denounced the obstructionism of the Spanish and French governments. Taking stock of developments following the Conference of Aiete and restating its commitment to the end of violence, ETA criticised the attitude of most of the political parties and asked for pressure by society as a way to deal with the new challenges.
A few days later, the Spanish Interior Minister made a statement to the press, saying that the cessation of [armed] activity by ETA was irreversible and claimed that he did not observe any risk of a split in the organisation. Furthermore, the president of the Employers’ Association of Navarre confirmed that extortion in the form of the so-called “revolutionary tax” had ceased since the announcement made by ETA in April 2011.
In August, in the context of demands in favour of prisoners’ rights, some cases of street violence took place in a town in Bizkaia when some young men wearing balaclavas burnt rubbish containers. Representatives of the all the political parties rejected these incidents, including those of the abertzale [proindependence] Left, who assured that they “had absolutely nothing to do with this kind of events”.
At the end of August, according to information confirmed by ministry sources, it was announced that the Interior Ministry was looking at setting up a plan to facilitate the return of ETA members who had fled to other countries. To be entitled to this measure, they would have to disassociate themselves from the armed group, although the way in which this break should be formulated has not been specified. The plan would be aimed at both those who do not have pending issues with the Spanish courts and those subject to a search and arrest warrant.
On September 27th, to mark the Gudari Eguna (“The day of the Solider”, a commemorative date marked by organizations close to the ideology of the abertzale left to remember, according to its organizers, “the members of armed groups killed in defence of freedom of the Basque Country”), ETA issued a new statement in which it remarked the “total commitment to the process of liberation and to the opportunity to resolve the conflict”, while expressing that “it is time to heal wounds and to encourage dialogue and agreement”. Finally, it points out that the attitude of the states may cause some discomfort, but that for this reason “we mustn’t give up, but persist.”
2. The victims
Following the entry into force of a Basque Government decree on reparation for police abuse, the first meeting of the Evaluation Commission on unfair suffering was convened in July. The members of this working group, in addition to determining who have been the victims of police abuse between 1960 and 1978 and establishing suitable reparation measures, will investigate what happened to those people and will have the opportunity to interview victims and witnesses. Since the decree came into force twenty people have applied for reparation for police abuse.
The imprisoned leader of the old Batasuna, Arnaldo Otegi, recently published a long interview in which, among other things, he said “if, in my capacity as spokesman (and I speak in the name of all the spokespersons of Batasuna), I have added a trace of pain, suffering or humiliation to the families of the victims of armed actions by ETA, I would like to apologise most sincerely, and say “sorry” from the bottom of my heart.” These words were well received in most quarters, including Basque political parties and the Basque Government, with the exception of some victims of terrorism associations.
3. Situation of people in prison
On 10th July this year the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg passed the first major sentence on the so-called ‘Parot doctrine’ (whereby prison sentences are reviewed on an individual basis) in the “Inés del Río versus Spain” case. The Court’s verdict maintained that the application of the Parot doctrine to this person represented the violation of several articles of the European Convention on Human Rights. It called on Spain “to release the plaintiff” and pay Inés del Río damages of 30,000 euros.
The Spanish Government has announced that it will appeal before the Great Chamber of the Human Rights Court in Strasbourg in October. Until the appeal court gives its verdict, the judgement for the Inés del Río case is not final. Furthermore, the Constitutional Court has rejected suspending the application of the Parot doctrine to the prisoners who had applied for it, delaying the decision until it receives the definitive verdict from Strasbourg. The Audiencia Nacional (National Court) has said it will take a decision on the application of this sentence in early October.
In August the media focused on the case of the prisoner Iosu Uribetxebarria Bolinaga. Suffering a serious and incurable illness, he began a hunger strike to ask for parole, as envisaged by Spanish law. This demand was backed up in dozens of jails and led to a strong and constant social mobilisation. After the Prisons Administration granted him third grade imprisonment the competent judge in the Audiencia Nacional agreed his parole for “reasons of a humanitarian and personal dignity nature”. This decision, appealed against by the State Prosecutor’s Office, has finally been confirmed and the prisoner is now in hospital unsupervised.
The case of Bolinaga has led to very different reactions. The gulf between representatives of the PP is quite striking; it was seen when the MEP Jaime Mayor Oreja criticised the decision by the Interior Ministry (of his own party) to grant Bolinaga the third grade, a reaction that the minister said was “offensive”. The Association of Victims of Terrorism has made fierce criticisms of the decisions taken by the Interior Ministry and the legal institutions.
Currently, thirteen ETA members are still in prison despite being in a situation of irreversible illness. Finally, the European Association of Lawyers for Democracy and World Human Rights (ELDH) has called on the Spanish Government to repeal the ‘Parot doctrine’ and to release prisoners whose sentences have been extended or are suffering serious and incurable illnesses.
II. Civil and political rights
Among the mobilisations that have been convened and carried out in favour of the rights of incarcerated persons, we would highlight the prohibition (by the Audiencia Nacional) of a march organised last August 24th by Herrira in favour of the release of Uribetxebarria from prison, arguing that it could incur in an offence of encouragement of terrorism. This decision has been criticised by broad sectors of Basque society. Even so, many other mobilisations have taken place under the same terms as the one that was prohibited.
III. Political dialogue
In July the first agreement was obtained within the draft proposal for peace in the Basque Parliament. Consensus was reached around the first point in the document, regarding the basis for future coexistence. PNV, PSE-EE, PP, Ezker Anitza and ex-parliamentarians of Aralar agreed on a text that indicates the need for a “peace with memory” that consolidates the “guarantee of non-repetition” of episodes of violence in in Euskadi.
Lehendakari Patxi Lopez has called early elections in the Basque Autonomous Community on October 21st. It will be the first time that regional elections are held without the threat of ETA’s violence and the presence of all the political traditions following the legalisation of Sortu. Another symptom of the process of political normalisation is that representatives of the PSE-EE and Sortu have been – and continue to do so – holding conversations. This has been confirmed by both formations.
IV. International efforts
Fifteen international political formations have signed a declaration in which, among other things, they include the express defence of the search for peace in the Basque Country through dialogue. Specifically, the signatories show their “support for all efforts aimed at the resolution of the conflict in the Basque Country” and call on “the parties to commit to a process of dialogue and negotiation”. The text was agreed on July 14th this year in Casablanca during the third congress of Vía Democrática, a left-wing Moroccan political organisation.
Furthermore, fifteen German parliamentarians from different parties – members of the Bundestag and the European Parliament – showed their adherence to the Declaration of Aiete, considering it “an important contribution by the international community to the peace process” in the Basque Country.
Lokarri is a citizens’ network that works for peace, consensus, consultation and reconciliation. To learn more about their work, please click here.