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SPAIN: Renowned Mediators Urge ETA to Lay Down Arms

Tito Drago

MADRID, Oct 17 2011 (IPS) - International mediators meeting in a peace conference Monday in Spain’s northern Basque region were hopeful that the armed separatist group ETA would respond positively to their call for the group to lay down arms.

The group of international personalities who have helped broker solutions in places like South Africa and Northern Ireland said “We believe it is time to end, and it is possible to end, the last armed confrontation in Europe.”

“We call upon ETA to make a public declaration of the definitive cessation of all armed action,” they said in a statement read out at the meeting in San Sebastián, in the Basque Country.

The negotiators, who included former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan and former prime ministers Bertie Ahern and Gro Harlem Brundtland of Ireland and Norway, respectively, were trying to help bring about an end to ETA’s four decades of violent struggle for an independent Basque homeland in northern Spain and southwestern France, in which it has killed some 850 people.

But while the mediators were optimistic, sceptics pointed out that the Spanish government has held peace talks with ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna – Basque Fatherland and Freedom) several times, and the group’s declarations of a ceasefire have generally ended abruptly with a new terrorist attack.

In June and July 2006, government representatives held talks with ETA in Geneva. But in December that year, members of the group detonated a car bomb that destroyed a parking garage at the Madrid airport, killing two people and injuring 20 others.

And an indefinite ceasefire declared by the group in 1998 lasted 13 months.

A member of the Basque region government who asked not to be identified told IPS that the problem is that one faction of the group could be opposed to a peace deal and might return to the use of violence on its own, regardless of what the leadership has decided.

Former deputy prime minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, the governing socialist party’s candidate for the November elections, said “the only communiqué that would mean anything is one in which ETA declares an irreversible and definitive end” to the violence.

In January, ETA announced that a September 2010 ceasefire would be “permanent and verifiable” by international observers. But the government refuses to engage in talks until the group lays down its arms and disbands.

Spain’s police union expressed its doubts in stronger language Monday, saying the peace conference in San Sebastián would only lead to more deaths, because it makes ETA “stronger than yesterday” by recognising it “as a political agent with which it is necessary to negotiate.”

However, the police union said the group is in its “final stretch” thanks not only to the broad political rejection but, fundamentally, to the effective police work that has “profoundly weakened it” over the last five years.

The police union said the socialist party (PSOE) and the main opposition party, the centre-right People’s Party (PP), must continue to refuse to negotiate with ETA until it disbands.

Other participants in the conference were Gerry Adams, head of the Irish Sinn Fein party that was the political wing of the now-defunct guerrilla Irish Republican Army, and former French interior and defence minister Pierre Joxe.

Although the government did not formally participate in Monday’s peace conference, two representatives of the ruling PSOE party, Carlos Totorika and Jesús Eguiguren, took part, as did Iñigo Urkullu, leader of the moderate Basque Nationalist party, and representatives of several Basque nationalist groups.

No representatives of the PP, which is expected to oust the PSOE in November, attended the conference.

In their statement, read out by Ahern, the international mediators said: “We know from our own experience that it is never easy to end violence and conflict and secure lasting peace. It requires courage, willingness to take risks, profound commitment, generosity and statesmanship. Peace comes when the power of reconciliation outweighs the habits of hate; when the possibility of the present and future is infinitely greater than the bitterness of the past.”

“We also know from our own experience that when a genuine opportunity for peace arises it must be seized. The growing demand of the citizens of this country and their political representatives to resolve this conflict through dialogue, democracy and complete non-violence has created this opportunity.”

But many Spaniards, including PSOE supporters, criticise talk of “reconciliation” in a “conflict” when there has been no confrontation between two parties, but merely terrorist actions carried out for so many years, and continued for decades under the current constitution – the same constitution that allowed the political branch of ETA to take part in democratic elections.

The conference also called for steps to recognise and compensate ETA’s victims, and urged Spain and France to agree to talks if the group declares a “definitive cessation of all armed action.”

In addition, the mediators suggested 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.”

For its part, the PP spoke out against the peace conference. The party’s deputy secretary of communication, Esteban González Pons, said the participants were “thinking about Ireland or South Africa, but really don’t have any idea at all of the country they are in, and of what kind of conflict has taken place here.”

González Pons said peace conferences are held “in conflicts where there are two parties at war; but it isn’t peace that has been lacking in the Basque Country” but “freedom” that has been lacking in the whole of Spain.

The conference was organised by the International Contact Group (ICG) promoted by South African lawyer Brian Currin, the Basque peace movement Lokarri, the Berghof Foundation for Conflict Studies, Conciliation Resources, the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation and the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre (NOREF).

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