The Unconventional Peace Process in the Basque Country


The unconventional peace process in the Basque Country

A Meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Conflict Issues

25 April 2016

Here is a copy of my remarks:

My name is Andy Carl. I have been working in the field of mediation, dialogue and peacebuilding for the last 25 years. Until recently I have been the Executive Director of Conciliation Resources which I co-founded 21 years ago. Before setting up CR I help to establish another international NGO, International Alert. So I have had a front row seat in the development of this peacebuilding sector.

The four lessons that I would like to highlight today from what I have learned about effectiveness in international mediation & dialogue work are the following:

1. The importance of following and supporting the lead of people living with their conflict;

2. That transformation starts with enquiry – and that in order to deal with their conflicts, people needed understand them better;

3. That you need to pay attention to power, exclusion, asymmetry & inclusion, gender; and

4. The importance of taking the initiative – be proactive – work to prevent violence & be creative.

I have been part of a series of mediators and peacebuilding professionals engaging in the Basque country over the last two decades which reads like a WHO’S WHO of our field (perhaps starting with Fr. Alex Reid (the insider mediator in Northern Ireland) to, more recently, the South African head of the ICG who has spoken at this forum in the past, Brian Currin).

Like Northern Ireland, the conflict in the Basque Country – has long been a point of reference, a kind of touch-stone for this developing field. Fifteen years ago we published an issue in the Accord series on the peace process in N. Ireland – and with a local organisation, had it translated into Spanish and distributed around the Basque country to help them have access to and learn from the experience. Since then I have taken part in an international peace conference organised by Elkarri and the Autonomous government. With CR, in 2010, we drew on the Basque experience in our workshops and publications looking at peacebuilding across borders (based on the idea that conflicts don’t stop at borders why should peacebuilding?) CR facilitated workshops on public participation. We were invited to part of history, in co-sponsoring and taking part in the Aiete Peace conference in 2011. Since then I have been part of the civil society initiative called the Social Forum organised Lokarri & Bake Bidea to define the popular agenda of how to move from the absence of violence to winning a real peace.

I am honoured to share this platform with one of the great champions of peace and social change in the Basque country, Arnaldo Otegi. The headline challenge and lesson that I would like to share with you today is an idea that is relevant whether you are working on (or concerned with) the Spanish-Basque conflict or the Turkish-Kurdish conflict or the Syrian conflict or the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, or any of the many ongoing and unresolved conflicts around the world.

How do we pursue our agenda for peace if the conflict cannot be resolved on the battlefield – through hard power alone? What options do we have if there are no prospects for a negotiated and comprehensive political solution? All over the world today conflicts are “stuck” in these cycles of violence and unresolved conflict – often with relatively low levels of insurgency and counterinsurgency.

I heard a quote from a young Kashmiri militant – who said that his group first took up violence as a tactic of resistance, but overtime it became a culture, without an alternative. What Arnaldo Otegi and the Basque peace process have shown is how alternatives can be built through a mix of politics and creative initiatives, harnessing the power and influence of people and their organisations, their communities and political parties. Not only have they shown us that it is possible to pursue peace and justice in times of violence, but also that these alternatives are not only constructed by independent mediators and peacebuilding professionals. Yes – such organisations have essential roles to play. Yes – we have many effective tools and approaches for conflict resolution. But what the Abertzale Left have to tell us is of the roles and potentials for peacebuilding from communities historically criminalised for their close association and proximity to the armed actors.

Teresa Whitfield – (author of the book: Endgame for ETA) wrote that there was a concentration of factors that led to ETA’s decision to abandon violence – a perfect storm – of a sustained campaign from the Spanish and French states (police, intelligence and the legal system) plus a clear rejection and revulsion of violence by the large swathes of civil society. But these were not enough. It needed a third wave What Otegi and his colleagues did is that they made determined efforts to have an open debate about how to pursue the goals of the nationalist left. Which resulted in their decision to call for pursuing these aspirations through exclusively peaceful and democratic means. To do this involved the persuasion of their movement’s social and political base as well as politically challenging ETA itself.

I had the opportunity to witness the historic moment in Aiete when the stage was set for the dramatic call on ETA to end its violence and support the pursuit of peace and justice by exclusively peaceful means. The tragedy is that the Spanish state, in its wisdom, decided to put Mr Otegi in prison for having such powerful and peaceful influence, and we have had to wait this long to hear from the man himself.

I think this Basque example – of how to move towards peace – matters to us all because without the smart power (not the “soft power”) of public peacebuilding, we really are stuck living with our unfinished business of armed conflicts and the inhumane levels of violence and trauma. Of course it matters most for all those whose lives who have been touched by the Basque conflict and its violence – who live with its legacy and trauma every day.

I think that is the whole of Basque society – which is still a wonderfully intact and egalitarian society – but it means everybody knows somebody who is still suffering from the conflict. Of course it also continues to cast a shadow on the lives of many people in the wider Spain and France who have also been affected.

Yes, it is a beautiful country (and a fantastic place to visit), but we need to remember the survivors of the violence and acts of ETA’s terrorism. And without drawing parallel lines, we need to remember family members of prisoners like Mr Otegi here who, every week are visiting their relatives dispersed in the four corners of the Iberian Peninsula – they are all survivors of the trauma and repression.

At a time when refugees are drowning in the Mediterranean driven by exactly these kinds of unresolved conflicts. I appreciate it is difficult to sustain compassion for all those who suffer from war and armed conflict – but that is exactly what we need to do.

One of the effective things peace activists in the Basque country have done has been to insist on framing the problem as a complex conflict – and framing the many efforts to transform it collectively and over time as a peace process. For lots of reasons governments tend to be enormously resistant to this language. We hear about this context as a contentious Basque “Problem”. The Kurdish Question? The Irish Troubles? Even in referring to formal peace processes we hear of the Turkish “Solution process”, the government’s preferred name for the Thai–Pataani peace process is a “Happiness process”. Why do they bother? Why is it that so important how it is referred to?

Our meeting today is part of this “re-framing”. Basque peace activists have successfully asserted that ETA’s violence was one expression of the conflict but should not be misunderstood or misrepresented as the whole of the conflict (and visa-versa). In doing so they sustained the idea that the problem was not just complicated, it is a complex one and responding to complexity requires a different kind of thinking and strategy.

Complex problems have four characteristics. They are:

  1. Emergent: the events that you see are not predictable with a high degree of accuracy and sometimes fast changing;
  2. Information Generating:  including multiple and contradicting perceptions of the problem and the solutions;
  3. Adaptive: Actors and stakeholders are constantly and autonomously adapting their behavior and making elastic demands;
  4. Interconnected: and does not respect man-made boundaries – like the French and Spanish borders.

I think it is common in situations of unequal and asymmetric power, where more often than not, the state determines what the problem will be called (terrorism, extremism). This closes down thinking. One of the achievements of those working for peace in the Basque country has been to shift this public discourse – to build the legitimacy of an idea – the idea that ETA’s violence was a part of a wider Basque problem and that problem was a complex conflict – with many stakeholders – and that radical idea of the need to transform that conflict with a peace process.

How did they do it? How are they doing it? Answering this question helps us to understand why the interest and involvement of internationals was so important. And why the involvement of mediators, peacebuilding NGOs, academics and members of former liberation movements mattered. There is another important aspect of this example – with relevance for many if not all other conflicts and contexts of “terrorism” – that is the role and power of committed constituencies.

Arnaldo Otegi does not come from a peace NGO. He is a leader of a political, nationalist and progressive party and movement of Abertzale Left who are supported by more than 25% of the Basque population. I think the most important story in this complex narrative of the Basque peace process is how they (and he) asserted the voice of that part of the Basque community for pursing their agenda through exclusively peaceful means.

It is not uncommon in the ways we talk about war and conflict to overlook differences and pluralities – and to fall on simple binaries:

• You are either with us or against us?

• Choose “iraultza ala hil” / revolution or death; • Right or wrong:

• Help the heroes or be an apologist for terrorism.

What room is left for compromise and negotiation? It evaporates.

I recently heard a US Ambassador (Richard Haas) say that one of the important lessons they learned from their intervention in Afghanistan was, as he said “the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.” Traditional Diplomacy doesn’t do pluralism and diversity very well.

Civilians communities living with armed groups and perhaps sharing part or all of their political & national aspirations and perhaps their animosities with state authorities – are quick to be criminalised. Quick to be perceived by state authorities as apologists, sympathisers or supporters of their sworn enemies – tarred with the same brush – these civilians tend to indiscriminately receive the same harsh treatments. Whether it is nationalist Tamils in Sri Lanka, Kurds in Turkey, Acholi in Uganda, or conservative Muslims in Brussels and here in the UK, I think we all recognise these phenomena. They can be communities of resistance and communities of resilience – and such groups live in dangerous neighbourhoods.

In what has been described as the “polarised pluralism” of Basque politics and society, what I think is the real headline story in the Basque peace process, is how leaders of this associated community of progressive nationalists were able to exercise their insider roles and influence and change the course of the conflict. I think this is the still largely untold story. How it was possible to make the space and create the opportunity for a diverse community – in a time of violence and repression – to deeply reflect on the question of how to move their agenda forward, and whether and how to challenge the tactics of violence.

This is what happened in the period leading up to the Aiete conference of 2011. It is a story of not only countering violent extremism – but one of building pathways out of it. Part of the spectrum of Countering Violent Extremism – like conflict resolution itself – that is just not getting enough policy air time. So what are the potential lessons from these experiences?

a. Every peace process builds on a combination of the ashes of failed efforts from the past – and from the foundations of its successful milestones.

b. We know that peacebuilding is not an event but a process. Look at Northern Ireland. The process did not stop with the Good Friday Agreement. How many agreements have been reached since then? How many challenges remain outstanding?

c. Whether it is the example of the peace conferences, the debates and discussion and reflections on the tactics of violence that took place inside, but importantly also outside of ETA, or it is the example of the Aiete Conference itself, or the initiatives like the Social Forum and the unofficial International Verification Commission that followed.

d. None of these initiatives in themselves have brought peace – but together they point the direction and answer the question of What Works in Responding to Conflict

e. So the Basques do not have a roadmap but they do have a track record.

And some significant things have changed since the ETA’s declaration to end their violence:

i. There have been no further acts of ETA violence;

ii. EH BILDU is a legal party enjoying a healthy slice of public support;

iii. The conflict is not so much of a neuralgic issue for Spanish politics (*a sharp pain that is felt along the length of a nerve);

iv. Some exiles have been allowed to return; v. Some prisoners have been released;

vi. People will have their own measure of the change – but many live with less fear and anxiety;

vii. The private security sector has its been “demobilised”;

viii. Self-determination and constitutional change have a new momentum across Spain and within the EU (and even here in the UK) .

And I know they will continue to look for ideas, inspiration and assistance in meeting their challenges. This is important – not just for the transforming the conflict in the Basque Country – but also for all those working to prevent new acts of violence, end long-standing and seemingly intractable conflicts, to build legitimate, capable and accountable governments, and peaceful, just and prosperous societies.

I think that Basque experiences are relevant where there may be a military outcome, or where there might be a negotiated one – but I think they are especially inspirational for those contexts where neither of these seems likely or even possible. Where peace is truly elusive. For Palestinians, Kurds, Somalis, Kashmiris and so many others.

I encourage you to study and unpick the Basque peacemaking experience. While we have yet to see a new political settlement – we are seeing conflict transformation achieved through a series of unilateral steps, incremental agreements, and truly innovative initiatives. Of course they have enormous challenges and unfinished business ahead:

1. The Prisoners (dispersion);

2. Their exiles/refugees;

3. The continuation of arrests & criminalisation of political leaders;

4. ETA still exists/ disarmament is incomplete;

5. They have yet to deal with the traumatic legacies of their past;

6. And of course they have not negotiated their right to self-determination (to name a few).

We look forward to seeing new strategies for peaceful social change that tap into Basque social resilience – ones that are more sustainable than the historic vicious cycles of violence, and more effective! I hope that people and organisations here in the UK can continue to learn from and importantly – find ways to support your peace process. Conflicts do not resolve themselves – and winning the peace requires collective and concerted efforts. I hope that people, organisations and parliamentarians here will be able to make that commitment to supporting you in transforming yours – I know I will.

Thank you and good luck.

Author: Andy

Andy Carl is an independent and internationally recognised expert on conflict resolution and public participation in peace processes. He is the co-founder of Conciliation Resources, where he was the Executive Director for twenty-one years. Prior to this he was the first staff member and Programme Director at International Alert. He studied English Literature at the University of California at Berkeley and Anglo-Irish Literature at Trinity College Dublin. He was recently made an Honorary Fellow of Practice at the School of Law, University of Edinburgh and a Research Associate at the Overseas Development Institute. He now serves as an adviser to a number of peacebuilding initiatives and organizations including the Inclusive Peace and Transition Initiative at the Graduate Institute in Geneva and the Legal Tools for Peace-Making Project in Cambridge and the Political Settlements Research Programme at the Global Justice Academy, University of Edinburgh.

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