“President Zapatero, help to end violence now”

(ICG’s Op-ed published by several newspappers)

No one would have believed in the early 1980s that the Basque country, then hit by a profound economic crisis and mass unemployment, would become one of the wealthiest regions of Europe. Today, the Basque country is once again at a crucial time of its history. The conflict, with the pro-independence violent group ETA which has claimed more than 800 lives and inflicted much suffering to the population for four decades, can be resolved permanently.

Since the beginning of this year, many events have created a new dynamic in the Basque conflict. On the 10th of January, ETA proclaimed a unilateral ceasefire. The following month, the banned pro-independence left created a new political party, Sortu, whose statutes reject unconditionally political violence. In doing so, it fulfilled, in our opinion, the conditions required by the Spanish Law to be legalized. Unfortunately, this legalization awaits a decision by the Constitutional Court, delaying the objective of political normalisation. There is little doubt in our minds that legalization will soon be achieved, especially following the Constitutional Court’s decision last week to unban Bildu. This ground-breaking decision by the highest court of Spain is in our view a victory for democracy and the rule of law and will pave the way for long term political normalization in the Basque Country.

On 28 April, the two main associations of employers in the Basque region and in Navarre made public a letter from ETA, stating the end of the so called “revolutionary tax”. They also published that ETA had stopped its practice of intimidation and extortion since its ceasefire declaration which had led to the assassination of forty employers in the past. We undertook our own investigation and are able to confirm that this aspect of ETA’s general ceasefire is being maintained. We will continue to monitor ETA’s compliance.

The reasons for these positive developments are many. Besides Sortu’s commitment to exclusively peaceful means, the vast majority of pro-independence left nationalists have expressed themselves against violence; all Basque political parties except the Popular Party are calling for the legalization of Sortu; the Spanish and French security forces are succeeding in their anti-terror strategy; and international engagement in conflict transformation is building confidence that a sustainable resolution is indeed possible.

In order to encourage this dynamic, the International Contact Group for the Basque country (ICG-BC) was established this January at the request of a number of political parties, trade-unions and associations of the Basque country to facilitate political normalization and the end of political violence.

Until now, the Spanish government has not responded positively to this evolution. On its request, the Spanish Supreme Court opposed not only Sortu’s legalization, but also that of Bildu, a coalition of pro-independence parties that have always opposed ETA violence. The Supreme Court ruled against Bildu because its list of candidates includes people who were previously associated with Batasuna, which according to the court proves as association with ETA.  Fortunately the Constitutional Court has overturned the Supreme Court’s decision on Bildu.

Understandably trust is an issue. ETA’s detonation of a huge bomb at Madrid airport in December 2006 has not been forgotten. The government might believe that the current ceasefire is a tactical move to give time to ETA to restructure before striking again. Although we appreciate government’s apprehension, we agree with the majority of Basque political parties and social groups that the conditions are, for the first time in many years, now ripe for profound political transformation and lasting peace. For that reason we welcome the responsible and mature response from the Spanish Government to the unbanning of Bildu.

Today, we make a plea to the Spanish President : “Mr. Zapatero, do not miss this historic opportunity to help end the last violent political conflict in Europe. Do whatever you can to ensure that Sortu is given a chance to prove its commitment to peace and democracy, especially in the light of the decision by the Constitutional Court to unban Bildu; relax stringent security laws to enable an all-inclusive political environment in the Basque Country; engage with an international body to verify ETA’s ceasefire and facilitate the decommissioning of arms”.

In view of the upcoming general elections scheduled for next year, the Spanish government might be tempted to continue to oppose attempts by the pro-independence left to enter democratic institutions, despite the new opportunities, fearing criticism of weakness from the opposition. But we believe that this is a time for leadership and statesmanship. “President Zapatero you have shown in the past that you are capable of both”.

International Contact Group for the Basque Country

Members :Brian Currin, Silvia Casale, Pierre Hazan, Raymond Kendall, Baroness Nuala O’Loan, Alberto Spektorowski

 11th of May of 2011

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