Brian Currin, international mediator and promoter of the International Contact Group. Interview from Diagonal magazine with the South African who heads the International Contact Group.

Brian Currin was one of the protagonists of the closing ceremony of Lokarri. This South African mediator, who has participated in the peace processes in South Africa and Northern Ireland, heads the International Contact Group, an organism founded in 2010 by international mediators to promote the political normalization of the Basque Country. We speak to him about the development of the peace process.

You have participated in peace processes in Northern Ireland and South Africa, what similarities and differences do you find in the process begun in the Basque Country?

The specific nature of the conflict, its history and causes, is very different in each country. But at the time of resolving conflicts there are always similarities and fundamental subjects to deal with that repeat. These subjects have to do with the victims, with overcoming the past and with “transitional justice”, that means, the commissions of the ceasefire and reconciliation, or with the persecution of certain kinds of offences.

Justice has to be applied to give the victims some level of compensation. The question of the prisoners is also fundamental. How do we deal with this subject? Many of them have committed serious crimes, must it be studied individually who amnesty is applied or must it be applied to all? Do you release prisoners in accord with the category of the sentences? There are prisoners who are there only for their association with paramilitary or terrorist organizations, those must be freed because they haven’t committed blood crimes, should they be release immediately? Another category can be that of prisoners who saw themselves involved in episodes of violence but haven’t caused the death of people. These prisoners could be freed under different circumstances. It becomes more complicated when there are deaths. These are the challenges that exist in these processes.

Of course, there is also the subject of dealing with the organizations who led the fight. How do you carry out the dismantling of the organization, the decommissioning, their reintegration into society? On the other hand, there exist strict security measures that are always applied in conflicts, how do you dismantle the security regime that exists? These are common questions no matter how different the conflicts are. I think there is a particular element in the peace process in the Basque Country: you have an organization involved in an armed struggle for 50 years, which unilaterally abandons armed activity and turns to the government to see how to confront the consequences of these 50 years of violence. There are subjects about victims, prisoners, decommissioning… and the government, for its part, isn’t prepared and doesn’t have the will to commit itself to anything. They seek the complete surrender of the organization without implicating themselves in the consequences.

How do you evaluate the actions of the Spanish government in comparison, for example, to that taken by the British with the IRA?

In the context of Northern Ireland, the British government participated absolutely and they committed themselves, I think in good faith, in doing whatever was necessary. The question that the British government found difficult was the fact that the IRA didn’t want to disarm before the agreement was signed. The IRA wanted an amnesty but not to end the war until the agreement was signed and they could confirm that it was being implemented. The British government wasn’t ready for this, but circumstantially they ignored this question and began negotiations without a confirmation of disarming by the IRA. This was probably the biggest hurdle. But the British decided to adopt a practical practical posture and allowed Sinn Fein and the IRA to enter in negotiations and leave dismantling for a later phase. In the process they named a person to lead an international commission of decommissioning. This person was required to certify and verify that the IRA was maintaining the ceasefire. It was several years after the peace agreement was signed when the IRA really handed over their weapons. And they didn’t require them to hand the weapons over to the British government but that they deposit them in “arms dumps” and that they were verified by international observers. Surrendering to the state wasn’t the question. The British government didn’t insist on the IRA handing over their weapons, and this was an important factor in the successful development of the peace process.

Should ETA hand over their weapons to unblock the peace process?

I don’t think they are prepared to give their weapons to the Spanish government, unless they commit and discuss this with ETA the handing over of weapons and what happens to the people implicated. At this stage of the discussion I can’t conceive that ETA hands over their weapons since that, at the moment, the Spanish government isn’t willing to commit itself with ETA about this. The government has made clear that they aren’t willing to discuss the question of the prisoners. I think there has to be other ways to break this impasse. It’s unfortunate because they are delaying the peace process.

However, since ETA isn’t asking for an amnesty, but bringing the prisoners closer, a measured also demanded by a good part of Basque society.

In Northern Ireland, the subject of prisoners was treated in a commission. This commission worked with 600 prisoners that they freed according to a criteria established by law. It worked well and society in general accepted it, although it was difficult. Many victims felt pain by the release of the prisoners, but the majority accepted it as a lesser evil, because if this phase of the peace process an agreement wasn’t reached and the prisoners weren’t part of an amnesty process, the war and the conflict would continue and there would be more victims in the future.

The big question in this process is the return of the prisoners to the Basque Country so that they can be close to their family members. But this isn’t a political question and shouldn’t be treated as a political question. It’s a question of human rights. The European Convention on Human Rights establishes that prisoners must be in prisons close to their families. I think that it is a disgrace that the European Union and the international community in general are willing to put on a blindfold with these violations of the European Convention. It is also unfortunate that the French government and Justice Minister are willing to align themselves with the Spanish government. It is really unfortunate that the French don’t take a clear position nor that the European Union imposes itself on this violation of human rights.

Aren’t there international mechanisms that can help to get out of this situation?

Really, no. Many of the conventions aren’t binding. They establish standards but it is very difficult to apply them. You can go to the European Court of Human Rights, but it is also a weak structure, ineffective, because it takes between five and seven years to get a trial. Human rights are meant to be questions of urgency. It’s absurd that these structures allow violations to continue up to seven years before studying them. This makes that these structures look like a joke.

What do you think of the role that the Basque institutions are taking?

The Basque government is in a difficult position. Unfortunately there is a wide spectrum of political parties represented. As we know, the People’s Party left the institutions with which they don’t share the lines of action or where there is a representation of Bildu or Sortu. The Socialists, for their own political reasons, have also decided to boycott them. The PNV, Bildu and Sortu aren’t as effective as they could be in this situation.

And Basque society, what can they do to overcome this blockage?

What Basque society can do I think they are doing. It’s wonderful to see how they have become responsible. Also the PNV, the Basque Parliament in particular, the Lehendakari Urkullu, and of course Bildu and the Abertzale Left. They participate and try to be together, although unfortunately there are differences of opinion and conflicts between the nationalist parties. But, understanding the difficulties, you can see that they advance, finding ways to resolve the problems by themselves and, with luck, they will be able to make progress this year.

Do you think that the process in Catalonia has in some way been able to influence in the Basque subject?

I don’t think so. The same Lehendakari Ibarretxe tried a few years ago to celebrate a referendum, and they celebrated a citizens’ consultation. The Spanish government went to the Constitutional Court and they said it was unconstitutional. I mean to say, the Basques themselves have tried to make a referendum, so that I don’t really think that the process in Catalonia has any specific significance for the Basque Country.

As far as your relation with the Spanish government, it began badly, since the PP didn’t authorize your management, has it improved?

The posture hasn’t changed much. Before there was a lot more opposition to international intervention, but in the past two years I think they have accepted not to maintain the opposition. Maybe international intervention plays a role and makes a contribution to the process. Now we don’t have any commitment with the Spanish government, but they are letting us do our work without intervening.

This year is marked by electoral dates, with new parties who dispute the bipartisan nature of the government. Do you value that a change in the political panorama can unblock the situation of the peace process?

I hope that the next elections resolve a reconfiguration of the politics in Spain. I think that the Peoples’ Party will probably take the elections, but I don’t think they will get the majority that they had in the last ones. This creates opportunities because I think that Podemos, specifically, has taken an interesting posture about the situation in Catalonia and the Basque Country. I think that you can observe how the Peoples’ Party also needs some support, as it can receive from the PNV in the Basque Country. All of this can be translated into some desire to reach agreements, which can create opportunities that haven’t been given in the past years.