A car drives past a graffiti reading in Basque "ETA. The People Are With You", after the announcement of disarmament by separatist group ETA, in Guernica. Picture: Vincent West/Reuters
One of the most unlikely conflicts our veterans chose to tackle was the one between the Basque separatists and the governments of Spain and France, says Shannon Ebrahim.

South Africa is best known for exporting its diamonds, wine, and oranges, but we are also increasingly making a name for ourselves in the export of conflict resolution.

Many of our struggle stalwarts have supported or initiated peace processes around the world from Sri Lanka to Northern Ireland.

But perhaps one of the most unlikely places that our veterans chose to tackle was the conflict between the Basque separatists and the governments of Spain and France.

ETA waged a four decade long bloody campaign for the independence of the Basque territory, which lies on the border between France and Spain. It was blamed for the deaths of 829 people in a string of bombings and shootings on both sides of the Franco-Spanish border. Approximately 350 members of ETA are still being held as prisoners in both Spain and France.

One might wonder how South Africans could possibly impact on such a fierce war of secession, but the ANC’s history of armed struggle and successful negotiations provided some lessons for the Basque separatists. From 2003 onwards, what the Basque separatists wanted from the ANC was advice on how to transition from an armed struggle to peace negotiations.

It was after meetings with South African veterans in 2003 and 2004 the leader of the Basque independence movement, Arnaldo Otegi, gave a speech in which he referred for the first time to the option of a peace process as a means to resolve the conflict over the Basque Country.

Leaders of the Basque independence movement subsequently met with the former chief negotiators of the South African peace process Cyril Ramaphosa and Roelf Meyer, as well Kgalema Motlanthe when he was Secretary General of the ANC.

Later Brian Currin, Ronnie Kasrils and Robert McBride became involved in supporting the disarmament process of ETA. McBride was pushing for a negotiated settlement, and Kasrils was involved in the verification process of ETA combatants giving up their arms.

It should also be said that Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness also played a pivotal role in convincing ETA to give up their arms.

By 2011 ETA had announced the end of its armed campaign, and an International Verification Commission was established to oversee the disarmament process. The Commission was not recognised by the French or Spanish governments, but was recognised by the Basque National Party. What was different in the Basque case compared to other conflicts was there was no direct involvement of the state, which caused difficulties, and led to delays in the handing over of weapons.

The Verification Commission only had dealings with the Basque government, while the Spanish government under the conservative Partido Popular avoided relations with the Commission.

The other difference was that civil society and institutions played an important role in the disarmament process, in that ETA handed over many of its weapons to Basque civil society, which then gave them to French authorities.

A month ago on April 8, ETA announced it had surrendered all its arms and explosives, having provided information about the locations of its eight arms caches. It seems the influence of our own struggle stalwarts on convincing ETA of the utility of disarmament bore fruit. Unfortunately Spain has been dismissive of the disarmament process, calling it a unilateral affair. The official position is that ETA must simply “disband as an organisation and ask for forgiveness".

Spain does not see the need to negotiate with a group they perceive as terrorists, especially when they have many of their leaders behind bars. While Spain may have effectively secured a victory over ETA, there are few long running conflicts which result in lasting peace without some compromises on both sides.

ETA would ideally like its convicted members to be treated as political prisoners and freed. But the group’s lesser demands are that it would like to see improved prison conditions for those serving sentences in Spain and France. To date, both governments have refused. The current Basque government would also like to negotiate for greater autonomy like the province of Quebec in Canada.

All calls by the Basque government in Spain for the Spanish and French governments to open direct lines of communication with ETA have been rebuffed. The problem is that ETA has not yet disbanded and there are a substantial number of people in the Basque country that want to push for greater autonomy.

Dialogue with the Basques may prove to be an idea worth considering in order to consolidate peace.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's foreign editor.

The Sunday Independent