Brian Currin, a South African lawyer and peace builder known the world over, is a key figure in the Basque peace process. Gara journalist Mikel Zubimendi interviewed him during the International Contact Group final public event, when it wound up its work, in Donostia-San Sebastian, 20 October 2018.


Published with permission

Mikel Zubimendi.- I would describe you as a pragmatic, prudent, very diplomatic person. But you speak with passion about our country and its people, you have been here so many times, spoken to so many different people… what are your feelings now, when the time to say goodbye has come?

Brian Currin.- It’s a bittersweet moment, because on the one hand we look at the mandate that we had and what we set out to achieve, and that is sweet; there is a happiness that it has been achieved. But, at the same time, it’s been 15 years of my life and the Basque Country has become like a second home nation for me, and I have wonderful friends here and I have wonderful memories, and it is diffuclt for me to accept that this stage of my life is over. Perhaps even more so at my age. I’m 68 and will be 70 one of these days and you read in the newspapers that they refer to people that age as old men. I don’t feel like an old man of 70 but the reality is I am nearing 70 and a part of my life has gone.


MZ.- You have taken many risks, you have even been under surveillance by the security services, you have been warned not to take part, for example, in the disarmament and not to take over ETA weapons, as you would be deemed to have committed a serious crime and could be arrested, interrogated and sent to jail. Certain media in Madrid have labelled you as a mercenary, becoming rich at the cost of other people’s blood. In these conditions how did you keep calm, patient and manage to persevere?

BC.- I know myself. I know my values. I know what I stand for and what I believe in and I have confidence in that. So I don’t care what people who have other agendas say about me. Because I know what the truth is in that context. I have been involved in quasi-political work with politicians over many years in many places and in my own country and I know that politicians manipulate things. If that’s what they want to do, let them do it. What I need to do is stay focused and not allow these distractions to in any way take me away from what that focus should be.

MZ.- You worked on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and in the field of human rights law and have established a global practice in peace building. You have worked in Ireland, here in the Basque Country, in Colombia… but here, as a professional you were never able to take your guidelines or handbook, internationally accepted standards and protocols and say: this is the way we are going to do things here…. Is the Basque case exceptional, extraordinary?

BC.- Yes. By and large they [international standards and protocols] have been removed. And we have dealt with a process in exceptional circumstances. Where in normal circumstances a government is a major stakeholder and, because of that, it must be and wants to be a participating party, here we got a situation where a government said “NO” and pushed us away. For me that was a very interesting challenge.

How does one keep the process going when one was told “you must dance on your own”? That has been an incredible challenge; and when we realised that the Spanish government would never participate, we had one of two options: we either say “there is nothing more we can do” or we say -and this what we said to Batasuna and through Batasuna to ETA- if you decide not to continue with the process, essentially you are giving the government a power of veto over the process; but if in fact you start responding and dealing with the issues unilaterally you are responding in a counter-intuitive way; and, if you do that, it is not part of their contemplation, and what you are then effectively doing is taking the pack of cards and throwing them in the air and, who knows how they will fall? Nobody.

How does one keep the process going when one was told “you must dance on your own”?

MZ.- When you realised there was no possibility of rational discussion with the Spanish government. Their discourse was very hardline and heated. No political problem, only a criminal gang, no political reasons for the existence of an armed group. Destroy ETA and there is no conflict. Now ETA is no longer but the Spanish attitude is similar. Why? As someone with a South African, anglosaxon, background that tends to prioritise pragmatism and the end result, as an outsider, how can you explain the impossibility of adult rational dialogue with Madrid?

BC.- I cannot explain it. Because, as you say, it is completely contrary to the African culture of dialogue, of engaging. If you take, for example, Apartheid South Africa, where the stakes were much higher, where during periods in the early 1990s and before that 300-400 people were dying each week; yet the parties understood that there was a value, a need to engage and talk. So I find it very difficult to understand that, because it’s not the African culture, not even the anglosaxon culture. In saying that, you know, I’m not denigrating the Latin or Spanish culture at all, but I think the Mediterranean culture is much more passionate, more about revenge and epic. I would ask you, in the Spanish language, is there a word that encapsulates the meaning of “compromise”? I know there is a word -”compromiso”- but that means agreement. Compromise means “I’m giving something up, making concessions and I expect you to make concessions too so that we can reach an agreement that is not according to my expectations or your expectations, but something where we both lose a bit and we both win a bit.” Is there such a Spanish word?

MZ.- I would say no.

BC.- Well, that’s really my point. The concept of meeting half way… I get a feeling that is not part of the Spanish culture. And that is why even when ETA was making these concessions unilaterally, the Spanish Government was saying “we’ve won the peace”. Why do you want to win the peace. Is peace not something that benefits everybody? Madrid’s position was “we want to win the peace”. Now, I’ve never found that to be part of the Basque dialogue and in some respects I’ve found the Basque way more… African. And maybe all that was part of the problem.

Why do you want to win the peace. Is peace not something that benefits everybody? Madrid’s position was “we want to win the peace”.

MZ.- The solutions to fundamental aspects of the process such as disarming and decomissioning were extraordinary events led by ordinary people. Social activists, farmers, mayors, etc. For me it was a lesson: ordinary people took possession fo the peacebuilding process; they took risks and took on responsibilities. What is your assessment of this, when you look back on it?

BC.- That is an accurate observation. It reflects the uniqueness of this peace process and why this particular process should be studied, I think; it should be written about by the academics. Because it provides a model not only for peace processes where governments do not participate. It provides a model and a lesson of how important it is for ordinary people to be actively and directly involved in critical elements of any peace process and it is important because civil society then has ownership of the process.

One of the things that, I think, is coming back to haunt South Africa and to some extent has undermined the potential of the Irish peace process is that so much was done at a national, top, high political level but not from the bottom. So you get these agreements, you get the Nelson Mandelas and the De Klerks and the leadership who are engaging and understanding one another, they’re making the concessions, because they see there is a different perspective, different legitimate histories and positions and making those connections, whereas the people on the ground are not having that exposure and that experience. Then you get these agreements and everybody celebrates what has happened, but then in the village, the people who were in conflict continue to be in conflict because they haven’t been through the same exposure and experience.

Now, in the Basque Country, it is different. Here, as we speak, as this process is unfolding, there are people that I watch and see, different trade unions who weren’t cooperating previously, community organizations, people in villages who through local initiatives are actually talking to one another, beginning to share their stories. I think we may well find that this peace process is going to be much more sustainable in the long term, because of the work that has been done on the ground. So it wasn’t designed to happen that way but the fact that it has is going to serve this peace process well in the future.

The Basque process provides a model of how important it is for ordinary people to be directly involved in critical elements of any peace process.

MZ.- How many times did you feel frustrated during these 15 years?

BC.- So many times! Many, many times… It took a long time for us to come to the decision: forget about it, Madrid is a distraction. Let’s focus on the Basque Country. Let’s find a way to get the parties here, who might be differing from one another, the PNV, EH Bildu, Sortu… but they’re here and they want some sort of a solution -not the same solution; let’s find a way to get them to work together.

Now, when one is speaking to Madrid, it’s not just EH Bildu. It’s a much broader base. The fact that this debate happening now in the Basque Parliament about the new Autonomy Statute is important. The question of the Right to Decide is a central issue. You know there was a total denial in Madrid that there is a political element to the conflict in the Basque Country. Batasuna, they were banned, criminalised, they were terrorists, there’s no political issue. We knew there is a political issue, it’s the question of the Right to Decide. Madrid managed to push that underneath the carpet. But now it is there and the parties are engaging and talking about it. Because that’s real politics.

My own theory -and I wrote about it- was that actually Madrid didn’t want a peace process, they didn’t want ETA to go away, because if ETA continues to exist, you stick to your security legislation if Europe or the International Community says, you can’t have these laws that violate human rights you say “well, we’ve got a terrorist organization, we have to” and then they leave you alone. And that’s what happened, they were left alone. Also, when there’s a terrorist organization, you can say “well, this isn’t a political issue, this is an issue of terrorism” you never then have to engage with the political issue. But once ETA is gone, what’s left? The political issue! So now you have to talk. Now it’s pure politics. Let’s talk about the right to decide, and the parties are talking about that.

Actually Madrid didn’t want a peace process, they didn’t want ETA to go away

Once ETA is gone, what’s left? The political issue! So now you have to talk. Now it’s pure politics. Let’s talk about the right to decide

MZ.- The Basque public first heard about you around 2006. It was a very hard time with illegalisation and no political discussion among the parties. Looking back from today, can we speak about midnight and midday, I mean, if you the situation back then was the middle of the night and and what is going on is daylight if you compare with those dark times.

BC.- You know, there is a thing that irritates a lot of people about me, and that is I’m very persistent. If I see something that I want to achieve it’s very difficult to stop me, so I never thought of midnight, of darkness.

After the airport bombing in December 2006, I met with Rubalcaba, who was then the Interior Minister [Home Office Secretary] and I asked through the South African Ambassador because we understood they were probably wanting to break up the negotiations. I’d already been working here for a few months and we had already begun to establish secret channels of communication because nobody wanted to talk to Batasuna in public. Rubalcaba said to me: if you can get Batasuna to condemn violence, then we can start talking again. That was the challenge. I said, well, I’ll start working on that and see what we can achieve. But it never lasted because while I was trying to work on that the peace process ended.

When it ended, I then set up a forum (you have to try creative ideas and people like structure) which came before the International Contact Group. That was when we invited Raymond Kendall to the Basque Country, and we never thought in terms of midnight; we tried to maintain the channels of communication that existed even though the process had stopped, whilst we waited for something to happen and at that stage I was beginning to think of the need for unilateral steps and they themselves (Batasuna) had started thinking in those terms as well. So it was always a matter of keeping going. I’ve always seen the light at the end of the tunnel.

MZ.- Let’s imagine you return to the Basque Country some time from now, as an anonymous person, without a political mandate or agenda. How do you imagine the evolution of the Basque Country in the coming years?

BC.- I imagine a Basque Country which has a signifcant economic activity and growth. I Imagine a Basque Country that has been given the space to enable, once again, Basqueness -the uniqueness of Basque society- to flourish. It has been supressed but it is now flourishing and it is flourishing in a new world.

Of course, one would also be here in the context of a changing Europe. A Europe where there are really negative elements, the worst side of nationalism, but the Basque Country with its nationalism is an example of what nationalism can be and it stands out in the European context as a wonderful example of the beauty of having a national culture and tradition and allowing this Basque uniqueness to flourish, but at the same time I’m absolutiely convinced that pluralism is acknowledged and the diversity of the Basque Country will flourish at the same time. So, I really see a very positive future for the Basque Country.

The Basque Country is an example of what nationalism can be. It stands out in the European context as a wonderful example.

MZ.- What would you underline, what have you learned from Basques over these years? We are known for many good things but also for being headstrong and argumentative. Anything to highlight, good or bad?

BC.- You know, I think a central core to our human-ness is communication and what I observe of the Basque people is that they are communicators. They are real social creatures and in that context, whether it’s family or friends, they engage honestly and profoundly with one another and, of course there are disputes, but those are building blocks because that is how people get to know one another that is how relationships are built, rather than something that is much more anglo-saxon, you just don’t say certain things or talk about certain subjects.

Although my tradition comes from the continent of Africa since the late 1700s there is still a bit of anglo-saxon in me and I personally find it difficult to talk about certain things and that is a hindrance. Form me these are positive things but I do understand and accept that because of our weaknesses and frailty as human beings we are not always able to control those emotions and sometimes all of that can blow up and become very destructive at the same time. I haven’t experienced that here, because I’m not part of the Basque family, but by and large I feel that that element of Basqueness is something positive rather than negative.