1- Why do we talk about a peace process?
After more than 50 years of violence and pain, the last armed conflict in Western Europe entered its resolution phase after the International Conference in Aiete (San Sebastian, Basque Country) held on 17 October 2011. Under the auspices of internationally renowned figures (Kofi Annan, Pierre Joxe, Bertie Ahern and Gro Harlem), this conference laid new foundations for the construction of a just and lasting peace in the Basque Country. A new peace process began.
a) Previous negotiation sequences
This new process comes after several failed attempts to negotiate between ETA and the Spanish government, the first of which took place in Algiers in 1989. In 1998, twenty-three organizations signed the Lizarra-Garazi agreements, which were not implemented. Then, from 2001 to 2007, a series of meetings known as the Loiola Process took place, which did not lead to anything concrete.
b) The Aiete International Conference
The Aiete international conference results in a roadmap that proposes a method to overcome and resolve the conflict. The roadmap consists of five points, drafted in this way :
1. We call upon ETA to make a public declaration of the definitive cessation of all armed action and to request talks with the governments of Spain and France to address exclusively the consequences of the conflict.
2. If such a declaration is made we urge the governments of Spain and France to welcome it and agree to talks exclusively to deal with the consequences of the conflict.
3. We urge that major steps be taken to promote reconciliation, recognize, compensate and assist all victims, recognize the harm that has been done and seek to heal personal and social wounds.
4. In our experience of resolving conflicts there are often other issues that, if addressed, can assist in the attainment of lasting peace. We suggest that non violent actors and political representatives meet and discuss political and other related issues, in consultation with the citizenry, that could contribute to a new era without conflict. In our experience third party observers or facilitators help such dialogue. Here, such dialogue could also be assisted by international facilitators, if that were desired by those involved.
5. We are willing to form a committee to follow up these recommendations.
The former MEP’s endorsing this statement want to support the recommendations made on that declaration and call on the European Institutions to play their role in the resolution of the last armed confrontation in the European Union.
ETA responds favourably on 20 October 2011 by announcing the definitive end of the armed struggle.
2- Civil society as a driving force in the process
a) Bake Bidea
After the Aiete conference, civil society is organising itself. The civil movement Bake Bidea (“The Road to Peace”) is formed and gives impetus to a permanent reflection and mobilisation around the challenges of the peace process in the Basque Country. At the same time, elected representatives and/or political representatives draw up a roadmap detailing the steps for the advancement of the process and the involvement of the French state: this is the Bayonne Declaration.
A consensus is built between the majority of the political spectrum and is consolidated at a humanitarian conference held in Paris in June 2015, in the presence of Michel Joinet, Michel Tubiana, Serge Portelli and Pierre Joxe.
Despite ETA’s declared will to initiate negotiations on the consequences of the conflict, and the will of the political and social majority of the territory, no steps has been taken by the French nor the Spanish states.
The process is bogged down and the lack of prospects for solutions for treating all the consequences (the disarmament process, the demobilisation and reintegration of ETA, the victims, the memory, the truth) jeopardises its viability.
b) Artisans of Peace
As a result, civil society takes the process fully in hand and ETA delegates responsibility for its disarmament to Michel Berhocoirigoin, Txetx Etcheverry and Michel Tubiana. On the 16th of December 2016 in Louhossoa, as they were about to begin the disarmament of ETA by neutralising its arsenal, Michel Berhocoirigoin and Txetx Etcheverry, along with three other people, were arrested. All of them are well-known personalities in the Basque Country, committed to peace. The day after their arrest, a large demonstration is organised in Bayonne, bringing together thousands of citizens and elected representatives. They are released on bail at the end of their detention, but the event creates such a shock that the need to find a solution to the problem becomes more obvious than ever.
With the support of some fifty Artisans of Peace, political figures and members of Basque civil society, their initiative continues and is concluded on “Disarmament Day”, the 8 April 2017, when more than 20,000 people come together in the streets of Bayonne, demonstrating by their presence their desire to open up a new stage. On the morning of this large popular gathering, the coordinates of the arms caches are given to the French authorities. The police comes to the sites where 172 “witness-observers” representing civil society are waiting. 3.5 tons of weapons, explosives and ammunition are handed over to the authorities, corresponding to the total arsenal under ETA’s control according to the International Verification Commission, which validates the complete disarmament of ETA.
Since then, Bake Bidea, the Artisans of Peace and the Delegation of the Basque Country continue to work tirelessly, voluntarily and non-violently, for the continuation of the peace process in the Basque Country.
3- Resolving the consequences of the conflict through dialogue
a) The Bayonne Declaration
In 2014, elected representatives from the Basque Country and from parties of all political persuasions, approving the Aiete Declaration and the points contained therein, showed their strong commitment by working to make their contribution to the peace process. Through the Bayonne Declaration, they identified the real opportunities for taking steps towards living together and laying the foundations for a lasting peace in the whole Basque Country.
This declaration (see annexes) reaffirms the indispensable dialogue between the French government and ETA, allowing for possible measures within the legal framework and respect for human rights, but also indicates measures requiring a political consensus and a new legal framework, as well as measures concerning the end of ETA’s armed activity. It calls for the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission of experts to deal with the consequences of the conflict and to establish mutual recognition of the suffering of all victims. Finally, it asks that the North Basque Country be provided with a specific institutional framework that will enable the achievment of a lasting peace.
b) Results of the space for dialogue from its creation to the present day
In July 2017, a space for dialogue was opened between the Ministry of Justice and a plural delegation (elected representatives, Artisans of Peace). Its objective was initially to put an end to the application of exceptional measures towards the prisoners: imprisonment far away from home, DPS (Particularly Supervised Prisoner) status, conditional release, suspension of sentences. In a first phase and in consultation with the prisoners, this cycle of meetings made it possible to transfer nearest from home and/or regrouping of almost all the prisoners (in Lannemezan and Mont-de-Marsan for the men and in Rennes for the women who wished to do so), as well as the lifting of the majority of the DPS status. This phase had its moments of impasse, and required a great deal of educational work, particularly with the Ministry of Justice and the prison administration.
However, since the beginning, this space for dialogue has been marked by a major obstacle: these cases are only dealt through the prism of anti-terrorism. This has been the case for the transfer nearest from home and for the lifting of DPS status, and it is still the case for sentence adjustments. The radical change in the context in the Basque Country is denied. Consequently, there is no consideration of the major steps and advances (disarmament of ETA, dissolution of the ETA organisation on the 3th of May 2018, conference on living together in the presence of victims from all sides in June 2019).
In particular, the attitude of the National Anti-Terrorist Prosecutor’s Office (PNAT) is worrying. By systematically appealing against the decisions of the judges of first instance allowing for the adjustment of sentences, it is based on a systematised position anchored in a logic of the past. It closes all prospects for sentence adjustments and, finally, it is contrary to the opinion of the judges of first instance and the Bayonne public prosecutor’s office who have taken note of the new political situation and are in favour of sentence adjustments.
d) Consequences of the conflict: what are the issues?
– Guaranteeing that history does not begin again
A peace process drawn up and ratified in due form between the belligerents is a guarantee that the conflict will end. The Irish process (signed on 10 April 1998) or more recently the Colombian process (24 August 2016) are two examples. However, the Basque peace process remains a unique case in history. It is the only one in which two states, Spain and France in this case, although directly concerned by the end of the armed struggle of a violent organisation, refuse to get involved.
The self-dissolution of ETA was nevertheless solemnly declared in Geneva and Cambo-les-Bains on 3 and 4 May 2018 in the presence of a large foreign delegation and many Basque elected representatives. This initiative marks the end of a major chapter in the recent history of the Basque Country.
One of the fundamental issues in the progress of the process is the non-repetition of the episodes that led to so much suffering in civil society. This concern is shared by the President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron, who declared in Biarritz on 17 May 2019: “The Basque question is a real issue for me. The Basque Country is for me an example, when I look at the last few years, of resolving a conflict and getting out of the arms. What is this due to? We must pay tribute to many elected representatives of the region, many elected representatives on the French and Spanish sides, for their willingness to bring about this work of reflection and reconciliation. The State’s duty is to accompany the movement. We must not make history stutter, we must accompany it.
However, the important steps taken since Aiete have not led to a radical change in the treatment of Basque affairs.
– Stories, Memories and Living Together
The objective of the peace process is not to draw a line under the past. But it is to understand the reasons for it at the level of the states involved and, above all, the consequences for the families, whether they are those of the prisoners or the victims. This is one of the task that Bake Bidea has set itself, with the intention of laying the foundations for long-term reparative actions. Decades of bloody history cannot be magically erased with the stroke of an eraser! Everyone has realised that a peace process must be demanding, “nourished” and underpinned by the search for truth, justice, reparation and memory, with a view to living together.
d) International standards
– The question of prisoners throughout the world: political agreements and transitional justice.
Unlike the process currently underway in the Basque Country, most countries that have experienced armed conflict end up signing political agreements. It is in this context that the issue of the release of prisoners is addressed. Peace agreements, ceasefires, reconciliation agreements, each conflict finds its own political way out according to its context, history or intensity. Between victors’ justice and a general amnesty law, intermediate solutions emerge from these political agreements.
Thus, in the Irish conflict, it was the so-called Good Friday Agreement that led to the passing of a specific law in the Republic of Ireland and in Great Britain and to the setting up of a Sentence Review Commission. In South Africa, another compromise was reached: a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was charged with the task of granting amnesty or not for acts committed (and therefore their perpetrators) during the Apartheid regime.
To accompany this painful issue for the families of victims, other mechanisms must guarantee their fundamental rights. Thus, for some years now, the term Transitional Justice has been gaining ground in conflict resolution issues. It is based on four essential pillars: the right for all victims to Justice, to Truth, to Reparations and to a guarantee of non-repetition. These four pillars can be adapted to each specific context in order to better respond to local needs: there is no single recipe in this regard.
Dealing with the issue of prisoners is therefore not a denial of justice for the victims as long as it is the result of a political consensus and that other mechanisms are put in place. In view of the evolution of the peace process in the Basque Country, especially after unilateral disarmament outside of political agreements, but also in view of international experiences, it is possible to re-evaluate the situation of Basque prisoners.
– What is Transitional Justice?
Transitional Justice (TJ) is a term that is increasingly ‘in vogue’ in conflict resolution mechanisms. It has become a kind of catch-all term. What needs to be understood is that Transitional Justice is a set of mechanisms for societies that have experienced conflict, a violent past, massive violations of human rights which allow :
- that victims have their rights guaranteed and that impunity does not take root (right to Justice);
- that measures are taken to shed light on past crimes (right to the Truth);
- that forms of redress are found for the victims but also for society as a whole (right to Reparations)
- that measures are taken at the institutional level so that the reasons that led to the conflict (injustice, iniquity, authoritarian power, etc.) are no longer valid and so that the violence is not repeated (Right to Reform or guarantees of non-repetition).
In this respect, Transitional Justice is not singular: it is a whole, a set of mechanisms that together should allow reconciliation. Above all, it is not a ‘magic’ and unique answer. Each conflict, each region has its own specificities and the way to respond to it is not necessarily the same whether it is in Guatemala, Burundi, Cambodia or Canada. If there are mechanisms that are unanimously recognised in their basic concept, their implementation is necessarily different depending on the context in which they are carried out.
– Actions and lines of work
The Basque conflict does not have a unanimously recognised definition or a common understanding of the causes that led to its existence. This is a task that society as a whole and the actors in the conflict have yet to undertake. However, in different forms, both north and south of the Pyrenees, violence has been expressed. In general, a conflict is seen as a monolithic block, yet each territory, each generation, each stakeholder has its own experience of the conflict. This is the work that remains to be done: to bring together each point of view in order to no longer oppose memories, but to confront them in order to bring out a common vision of a future living together and to teach this memory to the next generations in order to relieve the frustrations and avoid a return to violence based on the same causes as the one we have experienced.
On the basis of this observation, it can be said that in the Basque Country there is a cruel lack of common understanding of past events, their causes and consequences, but also sometimes a denial of certain acts or of their significance. It is in this sense that the implementation of Transitional Justice mechanisms is justified in the Basque Country and should be articulated around a few key elements that must necessarily be explored and confronted with all the actors of a society (young people, politicians, associations, victims, etc.). ), but which could include the following: Establish the facts fairly and qualify them throughout the Basque Country (North and South); make them public; share them and approach a common reading of History; recognise the victims in their capacity as victims; recognise individual and collective responsibilities; compensate the victims (individually or collectively); Encourage the emergence of shared individual and collective memorial initiatives in each part of the territory that experienced violence; reduce the asymmetry between too much justice on the one hand (broad repression, relentlessness, dispersal of prisoners) and the virtual absence of justice in cases of torture, GALs, etc. on the other hand.
4- What is the status of the peace process?
a) A blocked peace process
The peace process is in a stagnation phase, and despite significant progress, it runs into the issue of prisoners.
The fate of the two oldest ETA prisoners, Jakes Esnal and Ion Parot (sentenced to life imprisonment in April 1990) is a perfect illustration. These prisoners, who are over 71 years old, begin their 32nd year in prison in April 2022. The sentence enforcement judges are in favour of their conditional release. But the PNAT, by appealing against these decisions, opposes systematically their release and reintegration, thus resurrecting a death sentence disguised as imprisonment until the end of their lives.
This deadlocked situation is causing growing impatience in the Northern Basque Country. Why the words expressed by the President of the Republic have not been translated into the application of a new penal policy? Although it is not officially possible to intervene in individual cases, we know it is possible to give guidelines on a general situation that has radically and positively changed, and which must be taken into account.
While no change seems to be coming from Paris, at the same time, recent movements have been observed in Madrid. The transfer of more than a hundred prisoners towards jails in the Basque Country and the evolution of the status (or “grades”) attributed to the prisoners, suggest new perspectives.
b) A new phase of mobilisation
Given the feeling of indifference from the State towards the resolution of the issue of the prisoners, which is an essential step for the continuation of the process, the Artisans for Peace and Bake Bidea launched a new phase on 8 January 2022, with the aim of the release of Jon Parot and Jakes Esnal as soon as possible, and the aim of finding a solution for all the prisoners in France and Spain, in particular Unai Parot, who is held in Spain.
This new phase is marked by a series of stronger, more determined and spectacular actions, which can go as far as civil disobedience with its characteristics: it is a personal and responsible act, but carried out in a collective, in a public, assumed, transparent and non-violent way, with respect for each person and a concern for democracy. It is a question of making the voice of Basque society heard at the highest level of the State.
Together, the elected representatives, organisations and association activists have always shown their concern to value what unites them rather than what separates them. There can be no question of leaving to future generations to pay for what we have not achieved!
199 prisoners incarcerated in the South Basque Country, France and Spain.
54,5 % in the South Basque Country (108 prisoners)
35 % in Spain (70 prisoners)
10,5 % in France ( 21 prisoners)
13,5 % are women ( 27 prisoners)
86,5 % are men ( 172 prisoners)
25 % of the prisoners have completed 3/4 of their sentence.
7.5% are seriously ill (15 prisoners, including 1 in France)
12% are over 60 years old (7 of whom are over 70)
22,5 % could have a confusion of sentence at European level.