29 April 2014 Edition
Spain should not squander arms gesture by ETA
The Spanish and French governments are part of the problem and therefore have to be directly involved in finding a solution to the conflict in the Basque Country
TWO recent stories from the Basque Country illustrate the stark difference between those in the Basque separatist movement seeking a comprehensive settlement based on peace and equality for the people of the Basque country and those in the Spanish Government seeking the defeat of ETA, the armed Basque grouping it was at war with for 40 years.
In February, an Amsterdam-based commission set up to monitor ETA’s two-year-old ceasefire released a video to the Spanish media which showed ETA members decommissioning weapons belonging to the armed organisation.
The commission is made up of six people from various backgrounds, including the former Minister for Defence in the South African Government and leading figure in the ANC, Ronnie Kasrils, as well as Chris McCabe, previously an adviser to the Northern Ireland Office. They issued a statement confirming and verifying the decommissioning.
The commission’s statement also said that the step by ETA is “significant and credible” and that “it will lead to the putting beyond operational use of all ETA’s arms, munitions and explosives”.
Former United States President Bill Clinton welcomed ETA’s initiative. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who played a leading part in South Africa’s transition to democracy, welcomed ETA’s initiative. He described it as “brave” and an important “confidence building measure” which “opens the door to the possibility of lasting peace”. Tutu called on the Spanish Government and ETA to “intensify their work” to create the “conditions for sustainable harmony and reconciliation in the region”.
The Spanish Government reacted to this huge step by ETA by dismissing it as a “theatrical exercise”.
And while ETA was preparing the launch of its video showing its members decommissioning a tranche of its weapons, a 36-year-old Basque political prisoner, Arkaitz Bellon, was found dead in his prison cell.
Arkaitz Bellon’s death in solitary confinement took place in a prison several hundred miles from his home and family. He was due for release in May. An organisation campaigning for political prisoners, Etxerat, said that Bellon had been beaten while in prison between 2010 and 2013 and that the Madrid Government’s policy of holding prisoners in jails hundreds of miles from their families contributed to Bellon’s early death.
And while the autopsy report did not show signs of violence on Bellon’s body, the group Etxerat said, “The dispersion of prisoners, as well as causing added punishment for the prisoners and their families, makes possible attacks and tragic events [like Bellon’s death].”
• Basque POW Arkaitz Bellon died in custody
The Spanish Government’s response to ETA’s ceasefire has been deliberately provocative and is designed to undermine the genuine efforts that Basque nationalists are making to move Basque society out of conflict.
And as other peace processes around the world have shown, including the Irish Peace Process, if you are part of the political problem then you have to be part of the political solution. And the Spanish Government and indeed the French Government are part of the problem and therefore have to be directly involved in finding a solution to the conflict in the Basque Country.
The key political issue which has fuelled the conflict from the 19th century has been the claim by Spain and France over the Basque Country.
The issue is a contest over national rights and independence with the vast majority of the Basque people supporting parties pursuing political independence.
The armed conflict, which was primarily between ETA and the Spanish state, claimed the lives of nearly one thousand people and lasted for over 50 years, during which thousands of people were imprisoned.
So there should be no doubt in the minds of the Spanish and French governments that what they are facing is a political crisis based on the denial by them of democratic rights to the Basque people.
The decommissioning initiative by ETA is consistent with a series of developments involving Basque activists that are designed to create an atmosphere of peace and new thinking among those hitherto committed to using armed force.
These initiatives are also designed to encourage the Spanish Government to respond positively by taking confidence-building measures to encourage dialogue and peace in the region.
The treatment of political prisoners is a huge issue that the Spanish Government should have moved on long before now and should still.
There are hundreds of political prisoners in jail, many of them long distances from their families with many others ill.
The Spanish Government should move all long-distance prisoners to jails closer to their families with a view to releasing them as part of a negotiated settlement with Basque nationalists.
The Spanish Government should not squander the latest important arms gesture from ETA. With the French Government, they should be promoting dialogue, peace and reconciliation to end the current impasse.