Madrid rash to respond so half-heartedly to Eta arms handovers
Analysis: Eta’s efforts should be received more warmly in the interests of peace
Ram Manikkalingam (centre), head of the International Verification Commission, shows documents listing arms and explosives belonging to armed Basque separatists ETA, alongside commission members Chris Maccabe (left) and Fleur Ravensbergen, in Bilbao. Photograph: Reuters/Vincent West
You could be forgiven for thinking that the bloody conflict between the Basque terrorist group Eta and the Spanish state was well and truly over. Eta’s “permanent, general and verifiable ceasefire” has indeed held remarkably firm since it was declared in January 2011.
However, the release of a video last Friday showing two masked Eta members handing over weapons – a risibly small quantity, it must be said – to an “international verification commission” is a reminder of serious unfinished business in this often shameful chapter in Basque and Spanish history.
Eta (“the Basque Country and Liberty”) was born in 1959 to campaign for Basque independence and to combat the dictatorship of Gen Franco.
Its daring, David-and-Goliath actions against a brutally authoritarian system won it a passionate and enduring mass following in the Basque Country, and a great deal of sympathy, often now forgotten, among democrats across Spain and internationally.
The decision of a hardline nationalist Eta faction to escalate its attacks after Spain became a constitutional democracy in 1978 surprised and outraged many former supporters. Yet the group retained the backing of about 15 per cent of Basques for many years.
Their loyalty was often fuelled by violent state repression – including routine torture and, for a period, death squads – by Madrid.
However, Eta lost the confidence of even its own banned political movement, Batasuna, when it failed to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Spanish authorities in the late 1990s, and especially in 2006/2007. Despite real opportunities to emulate the Irish peace process, the armed activists refused to take direction from their supposed political leadership.
Meanwhile, increasingly effective police work crippled the group’s capacity to carry out attacks.
Ceasefire without concessions
From 2008 onwards, Batasuna embarked on a remarkable variant of Sinn Féin’s “Irish model”. It’s often said that it takes two to tango but, aware that all bridges had now been burned with Madrid, the radical independence movement launched a peace process without a partner. With great difficulty, it convinced Eta to declare a ceasefire without any concessions whatsoever from Madrid.
For years, the Batasuna leadership suffered successive public humiliations. It reinvented itself under a series of new party names, with statutes that categorically rejected political violence, in an attempt to regain legality and participate in elections.
Ironically, its best ally in this difficult period was the relentless hostility of the Spanish right, which pressurized the courts to ban parties with increasingly impeccable democratic programmes.
Many Basques who had long rejected Eta were nevertheless outraged: Spain now appeared to veto a peaceful pro-independence political option.
So, when one of the new parties, Bildu, finally jumped through all the legal hoops, and with Eta already on “permanent” ceasefire, the political movement was rewarded with a huge surge in support. Bildu took an unprecedented quarter of the Basque vote in 2011, and again in 2012.
The growth of this pro-independence constituency poses a big challenge to the deeply conservative Partido Popular (PP) government in Madrid. But it may be mistaken in insisting that a “defeated” Eta should simply disarm and dissolve itself, without offering any exit to the 500-plus Eta prisoners still serving long sentences.
Human rights activists point out that the policy of “dispersal”, whereby prisoners are held far from their homes, is a questionable measure that harshly punishes families as well as inmates. Bringing the prisoners to Basque jails now would be a minimal and cost-free confidence-building measure.
That is what makes last Friday’s video more significant than might appear, judged just on the tiny quantity of weapons decommissioned.
In these circumstances, even this gesture was a difficult decision for the Eta leadership, and the promise of more to come should not be dismissed.
It is unfortunate that the Spanish government still refuses to recognise the international verification commission, with its international figures, like South African Ronnie Kasrils and Sri Lankan Ram Manikkalingam.
And it is very hard to see how Eta can decommission major arsenals without some kind of “safe-conduct” guarantee from Madrid. To do so, its members – and any commissioners who accompany them – risk 30-year sentences if they are caught.
It is a Kafkaesque situation when former terrorists are likely to be punished for trying to destroy their own weaponry.
The Spanish government should find the courage to challenge its own hardliners, and seize the current opportunity to bring this conflict to a complete close.
No excuse should be offered to remaining militants to restart the cycle of violence.
Paddy Woodworth is the author of two books on the Basque Country