Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain with an iron fist for nearly forty years until his death in November 1975, enjoyed visiting the Basque city of San Sebastian every summer. He used to choose the Aiete Palace for his stay, where he met with ambassadors, chaired governmental meetings and did the sort of things dictators normally do in the performance of their functions.
About three decades after his death, the local council took the ironic yet wise decision of setting up an institute for peace and human rights in the very same venue where Franco spent so many nights. On 17 October 2011, Kofi Annan, Bertie Ahern, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Pierre Joxe, Gerry Adams and Jonathan Powell met there with key political, economic and social stakeholders. After the meeting, they issued a declaration calling upon the pro-independence armed group ETA to cease definitively all armed action and requesting both ETA and the Spanish and French Governments to agree to talk about the “consequences of the conflict”. Three days later, ETA called a “definitive cessation” to its 40-year campaign of shootings, bombings and personal threats.
Suddenly, a day like any other turned into an evening of joy, hope and meaning. ETA had announced several ceasefires before but this time seemed completely different. ETA had been responsible for more than 800 killings and had threatened thousands of people, including judges, journalists and politicians. The Basque society could not stand it anymore. All political parties demanded ETA to stop, and there were very critical voices even from within ETA’s political arm. ETA had never been weaker both from a political and from a military perspective.
ETA has not killed or attempted to do so since October 2011. All those who had been targeted for many years started to learn what freedom is all about. They do not need to call the bodyguards before leaving their homes anymore. They do not have to look under their cars to check whether there is a bomb underneath. They do not have to sit facing the entrance of the restaurant when they dine out to avoid being shot in the back of the neck.
There is a fresh new wave of freedom in the Basque Country. Yet, ETA’s “definitive cessation” is not the last stop; it is rather the beginning. Last November we had the first totally free elections in the history of the Basque Country. Firstly, ETA was not on the stage. And secondly, all political groups were allowed to present their programmes and candidates. (Thus far, in application of the controversial 2002 Political Parties Act, political parties that were deemed to be “supportive of terrorism” remained outlawed).
ETA and the Governments of Spain and France need to talk about the definitive surrender of weapons and the situation of the approximately 600 ETA members that remain in French and Spanish prisons. Yet, in the matter of human rights ETA has absolutely nothing to say. After so many years of violence, ETA is simply in no position to preach dignity, freedom and justice. However, many issues must be addressed urgently by institutions and civil society organisations, which ought to take responsibility and put human rights at the core of the political agenda. We need to provide truth, justice and reparation for victims of human rights violations. We must make sure that all the necessary measures are adopted to prevent torture and ill-treatment of detainees and that the allegations of torture are duly investigated. We should adapt the criminal legislation to ensure effective social rehabilitation. We must fully comply with the highest standards of freedom of expression and promote tolerance of dissent. In a nutshell, human rights cannot be a bargaining chip. Human rights are and end in themselves, since they derive from the inherent human dignity, but they are also the only means to carve a sustainable peace in the Basque Country.
Although a good deal of work must be done, I am optimistic. We are now quite “busy” with the economic crisis and austerity-led policies, but I think the Basque society is excited about its future. The truth is that Basque people constitute a very diverse and dynamic society. Most of us are surrounded by people with whom we may disagree politically, and yet many social, geographical or even family ties remain between us. Provided a little effort is made, I find that in this highly intertwined society it is not too difficult to see both sides of the coin and acknowledge suffering on the “other”. This collective permeability will be key to the construction of a tolerant and peaceful society.
Photograph: Aiete Declaration (source: Gara)
This article has been published in Public Service Europe