Sunday, February 23, 2014

Basque Peace Process - Arms beyond use - An important step forward for Peace

In one part of Europe a vicious street war has led to the deaths of scores of people. The Ukraine has been convulsed by weeks of what some have described as a civil war. Efforts are currently underway to find a compromise that can bring peace. The key to these efforts is dialogue; both sides talking to each other and reaching agreement on a political way forward.

At the other end of the continent an International Verification Committee has confirmed that ETA has taken the first steps toward complete disarmament. At a press conference in Bilbao on Friday the Verification Committee confirmed that in January it oversaw the putting beyond operational use of an amount of arms, explosives and ammunition by ETA. It described this as a ‘hugely important step’.

I very much welcome this historic initiative by ETA. It is a major advance in the Basque peace process.

In both places – the Ukraine and in the Basque country - there is a clear desire for peace. In the Ukraine, European Foreign Ministers have been involved in brokering a peace deal. Europe holds its breath in the hope that it will work.

In the Basque country the dialogue for peace has been largely one-sided. The people of the Basque country, represented by a range of political parties and civic organisations, have been involved in recent years in a substantial dialogue around building a peace process. Their objective has been to bring an end to violence while creating the conditions for democratic and peaceful political change, including independence.

They took as their model the Irish peace process. Consequently, myself and other Sinn Féin leaders have travelled regularly to the Basque country to participate in this debate and to encourage its development. The strategy that has emerged, based largely on language and principles agreed here, commits Basque activists to using ‘exclusively political and democratic means’ to advance their political objectives. It seeks to advance political change ‘in a complete absence of violence and without interference’ and ‘conducted in accordance with the Mitchell Principles.’ And its political goal is to achieve a ‘stable and lasting peace in the Basque country’.

Making peace is not easy. It is especially challenging and difficult in the midst of violent upheaval. In the Ukraine it would appear that there is a general desire to step back from the brink and find a political solution to the political differences that exist. That takes real courage. But key to making any progress has been dialogue. A refusal to talk would condemn the Ukraine to greater violence.

The Spanish government needs to talk. Making peace is very challenging but I am confident that with political will the government in Madrid could engage positively.

Some will continue to argue that a policy of arrests and the imprisonment of political opponents is the only way. That didn’t work in Ireland. I believe this is the wrong approach. It runs counter to Nelson Mandela’s oft quoted mantra that to make peace we have to make friends with our enemy. That cannot be done in the absence of a dialogue. It cannot be done in the absence of respect for the rights of citizens to vote for elected representatives of their choice. So the responsibility of political leaders is to lead.

In this context the continued imprisonment of Arnaldo Otegi (Secretary General of SORTU) makes no sense and is deeply unhelpful. Arnaldo is a Basque leader totally committed to the peace process and to democratic and peaceful methods of politics.

The Spanish government also needs to remove bad laws which have no place in a peace process and which are an impediment to dealing with the issue of arms. This has become an issue following the decision on Saturday to bring the Verification Committee in front of a Spanish court.

Nor is the policy of dispersal of Basque prisoners from prisons close to their families conducive to the peace process.

Despite these and other problems the Basque people have repeatedly demonstrated in elections and on the streets their support for a peaceful resolution of the conflict in that region. The initiative taken by ETA and the belief that this is a process that will lead to complete disarmament is enormously significant. It is an opportunity that must not be squandered.

I appeal to the Spanish and French governments to respond positively to the announcement by the Verification Committee. The people have long historic links with the people of Spain, France and the Basque country. Our friendship goes back many centuries. The Spanish and French governments have a key role to play in promoting a process of dialogue that can advance the goal of a just and lasting peace in the Basque Country.

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