The Basque Country: Civil Rights by way of Human Rights

Article published on March 13, 2003
community published
Article published on March 13, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Human rights are a regular subject of controversy in the Basque country from where contradictory ideas are fired out as weapons of words in the fight for self-determination.

The government of Illinois recently declared itself in favour of the self-determination of the Basque country, whilst in Argentina, parliamentarians are flirting with a similar idea, in the wake of several world trips made by Ibarretxe in order to detail his plan for sovereignty and to carve out an internationally recognised status for what will be, according to his idea, the future Basque state. It is most likely that, in his explanatory discourse to foreign leaders, Ibarretxe included an exhaustive list of the damage and offence which the Spanish state has caused and continues to cause in the Basque country, without leaving out the requisite historical tour of destructive Spanish monarchies which dealt treacherously with his region and finishing off with the cultural, human and social strangulation that the Franco regime instigated. This latter, Ibarretxe might argue, was aimed uniquely and exclusively against the Basques (whose industry grew in spite of the totalitarian regime). Franco was the propagator of a single vision of Spain (bullfighting and 'olé!') which separatist nationalists now use as a reason to support difference and as an argument for rejecting the notion of a plural Spain as well as the rejection of Spain itself.

But by far the worst accusation arising when nationalists brandish their arguments is that the notion of Spain itself represents an outrage against the fundamental principles of Human Rights.

By chance, one of the most bloody, most tragically paradoxical struggles played out in the Basque Country is the ideological battle to "manage" Human Rights (if this concept can be seen to be subject to manipulation - although we are talking about an alleged totalitarian state here!)

Indeed, around the structures of ETA and Batasuna a number of actions are taking place in what could be described as a "fight for Human Rights" or simply a manipulation of the self-same: accusations against the Spanish state for continuing violations and support for detainees and their families. This infamous apparatus of propaganda has spent years has spent years denouncing alleged torture by Spanish police against members of ETA. Walking through the old quarter of Bilbao those charming, yet 'imprisoned' "7 Calles" I witnessed somewhat perplexed walls covered with a surrealist amalgam of posters, representing that impossible collage that is "Spain". Posters announcing that latest performance by Mari Fe de Triana (a well known folkloric singer) share space with the explicit photos of armed soldiers and blooded knees featured in posters denouncing the torture of the "Basques" by the "Spanish". Behind this propaganda, which cannot be seen in the rest of Spain and yet which floods humid alleyways in the old barrios of the Basque country, are the Gestoras Pro Amnistía .

These organisations, which denounce the alleged human rights abuses suffered by members of the abertzal circle and which call for prisoners to be grouped together in neighbouring cells, are a vital tool in the terrorist strategy because, in the first instance, they provide a social mask for the families of imprisoned ETA members and once again nourish an ideology of resentment and hate amongst a contingent who end up refusing to follow their friends in seeking social insertion but instead support the continuing struggle. Together with moral support for families of ETA prisoners the "managers" carry out a propaganda effort which, seen from outside Spain, encourages empathy within certain sectors (namely south-west France) and guarantees international support for ETA members and minions. Let us not forget that a large part of ETA's structure is based in France and that the recent dismantling of commando units is due to a trend toward a hardening of French anti-terrorist policy, in part accelerated by the climate of international fear after 11 September.

It is quite obvious that the claims of these "Human Rights managers" are not only unproven, but are also indisputably false. However, they play with the "illegitimacy" attributed by their campaign to the Spanish State in order to avoid taking their accusations through the legal channels. Of course, they have the right to manage the human rights of the victims; village neighbours, local councillors and journalists. All of them Basque, the majority with Basque names. Threats, hostage taking, extortion, targeted destruction of private property, not to mention all the murders they are capable of committing, have led judge Bazón to accuse them of crimes against humanity. However, if we limit ourselves to analysing the arguments put forward by the abertzale circle we can observe how they do not tally, not even within an ideological framework which was consciously oriented toward self-determination based on the universally recognised right of a people to choose its own destiny.

Human Rights arise as the individual's defence against the "people", the collective mass. They place the human being at the centre of their philosophy as if it were the highest subject of universal rights: the right to life, freedom of expression. These rights precede collective rights since they do not have a sense of the relationship between their subject and the "people". The latter concept is diffuse and difficult to represent and its identity is synonymous with homogenisation and socialisation of individuals within a common arena. Therefore, the rights of "peoples" to exist can never exist above human rights, which are the primary basis of our idea of justice. This seems to be the foundation (and also the difference) of European culture which is founded on a history of abuse and watering-down by nations - peoples - with their excesses and their rights as against those of the rest of the world (including the US death penalty, justification for continual wars and realpolitik etc). Not recognising the legitimacy of the Spanish State does not justify the violation of Human Rights. However, the Spanish State should be the source of Human Rights even where they raise critical voices. Here it suffices to mention the case of GAL, a group sponsored by the UCD and PSOE governments during the first few years of democracy in their short-lived dirty war against ETA, initiating what would become state terrorism. It has been the entering into force of the state of law (with the trials and later incarceration of those implicated in that embarrassing episode) that has enabled the Spanish state to harden its politics against ETA and Batasuna: ensuring that no notion of the Spanish people will supersede the Human Rights of a single ETA member even whilst they may be deprived of their Civil Rights as a result of their criminal activities. Because in the Basque country the erosion of Human Rights begins with the denial of civil rights of one section of the population (i.e. limiting political expression, threatening public participation in the 'political' sphere..etc), through which certain subjects, symbolising this lack of civil rights are selectively deprived of their Human Rights. The Civil Rights of what some consider to be the 'Basque people' take precedence over the Human Rights of the rest, and the denial of the Civil rights of the former is interpreted as a violation of Human rights, justifying terrorism, which constitutes a much more real violation of Human Rights. Amid this vicious circle associations like "Signal for Peace" and various other associations representing victims of terror are fighting to make themselves heard. In spite of everything, "Gestoras Pro Amnistía" and the PNV have done their work well and are once again propagating the idea of a Spanish state, which is both an oppressor, and a neglecter of Human Rights. At least that's what they are led to believe in that far off American state where the death penalty still exists, Illinois.