Eta’s ceasefire – five years on

It is regrettable that neither the current caretaker administration in Madrid, nor any likely successor, appears willing to consider a new approach

Five years ago today the Basque group Eta declared a "definitive cessation" of its armed campaign for Basque independence which had cost more than 800 lives since the 1960s. Eta was born under the military dictatorship of General Franco which had attempted to extinguish all public expressions of Basque identity.

The group was initially often recognised by democracies as a legitimate resistance movement; France gave political refugee status to Eta members in the 1970s.

Many observers expected Eta to abandon violence after Spain became a democracy in 1978. Instead, attacks increased as hardliners pursued a nakedly terrorist strategy. Nevertheless, its political wing won up to 15 per cent of the Basque vote. The roots of the conflict lie deeper than, as Madrid often claims, the operations of a "mere criminal gang".

Indeed, the response of the Spanish state sometimes only increased support for Eta, especially in well-documented use of torture against suspects. Madrid’s disastrous ‘dirty war’ strategy in the mid-1980s, involving extrajudicial executions by security forces, carried out with a terrorist lack of regard for civilian life, produced a new generation of militants.


Public support for Eta gradually eroded in the 1990s while police operations curtailed its lethal capabilities. The Irish peace process strengthened the hand of doves within the movement but Eta botched attempts to imitate it with ceasefires in 1998-99 and 2006. This at last forced the political leadership to impose itself on militarists. Yet the road to the 2011 declaration, regarded by most observers as a complete and final farewell to arms, required lengthy and tortuous debate.

Subsequent elections show the peaceful strategy for independence to be popular, with parties without violent links gaining up to 25 per cent of the Basque vote. Madrid, however, has been in no mood for negotiation, regarding Eta as simply defeated.

Spain still refuses even to return Eta prisoners to jails closer to their families and the legitimate release of long-term Eta prisoners has been systematically obstructed. Its political leader, Arnaldo Otegi, was jailed for participating in talks with Eta that led to the ceasefire.

Such policies suggest a desire for vengeance is trumping democratic principles of justice. They raise serious questions about the independence of the Spanish judiciary which has been sharply censured by the European Court of Human Rights on Eta-related judgments.

It is regrettable that neither the current caretaker administration in Madrid, nor any likely successor, appears willing to consider a new approach. Nevertheless, the Basque independence movement should continue to pressurise Eta's small remnant structures to dissolve and decommission its weapons. Guns and bombs have no place in legitimate debate over the status of the Basque Country.