For justice, democracy and peace. For Josu Urrutikoetxea.

The French sociologist Michel Wieviorka, founder and scientific director of the international platform Exiting Violence, advocates for the protection of Josu Urrutikoetxea, a key figure in the end of the conflict in the Basque Country.

What is a fair and unbiased justice? The question has been the subject of important debates in political philosophy, especially since the vigorous revival half a century ago, when John Rawls first put forward his theory of justice (A Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press, 1971). It also arises, more concretely, whenever a court makes a decision that is well-founded in law, but which may seem disconnected from an ideal of justice: law and justice do not necessarily coincide.

But such a question has no solid grounds and ought to be discarded when the judicial institution proceeds on the basis of a factually weak, or non-existent, and philosophically unjust case. Yet today, the opposite is happening for a former ETA leader, Josu Urrutikoetxea, whom courts in France and Spain are preparing to put on trial for terrorism. Josu Urrutikoetxea did indeed take up arms to resist Franco's dictatorial regime, and he did play an important role within the ETA from the early 1970s. He took part in the preparation of the attack that put an end to the existence of the President of the Spanish Government, Admiral Carrero Blanco, on 20 December 1973, depriving the dictatorship of the only personality capable of ensuring its survival after the death of Caudillo (in November 1975). He was amnestied on 20 January 1978.

A respected leader at the head of ETA's international apparatus, Josu Urrutikoetxea, along with others, made the choice at the beginning of the 1980s, when Spain was moving towards democracy, to set the organization on the path of political negotiation. He never diverged from this path, accompanying the main leader of ETA, Txomin, who from 1986 onwards established contacts with the Spanish government to organize what were called the Algiers negotiations at the beginning of 1989.

However, he was arrested in France on 11 January of that same year, in the midst of a ceasefire and just a couple of days before the opening of these first negotiations. This did not prevent him a few years later from playing a prominent role in the preparation and negotiations in Geneva (2005 and 2006), then following the international peace conference in Aiete, under the aegis of Kofi Annan, to welcome the unilateral decision of ETA to end the armed struggle on 20 October 2011. Then again in Oslo from 2011 to 2013, where he waited in vain for the planned visit of Spanish emissaries, ratified by Spain, to negotiate a way out of the conflict and its implications. During all these years he has continually called for a resolution of the conflict through negotiation within ETA. After its disarmament on 8 April 2017, he finally proclaimed, in Geneva on 3 May 2018, the self-dissolution of ETA.

All this is well documented, including his years in hiding from 2002 to 2019 – also in prison[1].

The inanity of the prosecutions that are once again targeting him today is undeniably obvious, and on the content, the accusations do not even make sense. Although he is accused of "criminal conspiracy with terrorist intent", the charges are based on facts that were precisely and directly related to his preparations from 2002 to 2005 for the Geneva negotiations and his participation in the Oslo peace negotiations from 2011 to 2013: how could he have convinced ETA to move in this direction without internal discussion and exchange? The way out of violence is never a long, calm river. Such a process requires the cessation of violence, it is not limited to it. At all levels, it involves all kinds of actors and is necessarily played out under tension. Here are some of the most decisive ones, related to the experience of Josu Urrutikoetxea. Emerging from violence may first involve conflicting demands regarding justice and peace. If the horizon is to judge, condemn and imprison activists who have committed violence, it is unlikely that they will be able to accept and even prepare for the end of armed struggle as they prepare to dissolve a militarized organization and join the democratic game. And symmetrically, if moving towards peace means exempting them from trial or granting them amnesty, then the very idea of justice is being undermined.

So-called transitional justice attempts to resolve this type of contradiction, and in some cases the introduction of forgiveness and reconciliation efforts provide a solution. It was the genius of Nelson Mandela, supported by Desmond Tutu, that led South Africa along this path in 1995. Here, Josu Urrutikoetxea's contribution to peace is undeniable. The accusation that he “participated in a criminal association for the preparation of acts of terrorism,” when there is any basis for this accusation, refers in fact to the process in which he negotiated the resolution of the conflict outside, as well as within ETA.

To emerge from violence requires victims to work on themselves, whether as individuals, groups or as a society as a whole. However, this work can face two opposing types of difficulties. One is melancholy, the inability to project oneself into the future, as if there were no other answer than to lock oneself into the sufferings and horrors of the past. The others are linked to the desire to forget, to stop thinking about it, and in any case to avoid it. Between the two, resolving tensions means carrying out a work of mourning that allows us not to forget, while considering the future and trying to build it. Who can believe that by condemning Josu Urrutikoetxea, justice will help the victims of ETA and Basque or Spanish society to move forward in their work of mourning and construction? On the contrary, by betraying the spirit, if not the letter, of the negotiations aimed at peace and democracy, by considering yesterday's partner as guilty tomorrow, it will reveal the duplicity of political leaders, and the vanity of the efforts of those who wanted to end the spiral of terrorism and repression. To leave violence, for those who want to lead an organization that has hitherto been involved in armed struggle, is not the same as leaving it, or trying to do so. It means arguing, which comes up against misunderstandings, refusals and internal opposition that can turn into intimidation and exacerbation of violence. It is difficult to extricate oneself from a terrorist movement, a guerrilla war, a force engaged in a civil war: it means abandoning a way of life to which one has sacrificed much, finding oneself without resources, cutting oneself off from a social environment, friendships, solidarities united by the experience of clandestinity; it means giving up. To be at the heart of a process that must end in the dissolution of one's organization is an even greater challenge. Success must be complete, otherwise resurgences of the old paradigm are possible, as well as scissions in which those who remain loyal to the armed struggle, deprived of the counterweight provided by more moderate elements, become even more radical In France, the proletarian Left, tempted then by armed struggle, rather succeeded in its self-dissolution in 1973, but a few years later Action Directe claimed to carry the torch. In Colombia, the historic pact signed by the government and the FARC guerrilla in 2016 did not prevent a new armed rebellion in August 2019, led by former FARC leaders. To date, the self-dissolution of ETA is a success, due in great part  to Josu Urrutikoetxea. Is it necessary to treat as a criminal, and even more so, on the basis of an unsubstantiated case, the one individual who was able to accomplish a final truce, the laying down of arms and the pure and definitive end of the ETA?

The end of the armed struggle is not planned in broad daylight. It involves innumerable exchanges, meetings and negotiations, with ups and downs, it mobilizes shadow mediators and actors who are themselves subject to various pressures from a militant base or public opinion, it depends on complex and changing political and institutional realities, and sets in motion opposition on all sides that is hostile to any negotiated settlement. It requires sacrifices, perhaps even renunciations, and real persistence on the part of those who are committed to it. We must protect those who embody this logic, and who take risks on all sides: by this yardstick, it would be indecent to reproach Josu Urrutikoetxea for having devoted time and energy, including with those he had to convince to negotiate and lay down their arms. It would be disastrous, once peace is achieved, to treat as an enemy the one who made it possible, when he was held up as an acceptable and responsible interlocutor during all those years of negotiations. This is precisely what motivates the major international mobilization demanding the protection of Josu Urrutikoetxea. It is not by condemning him unjustly, and on an unsubstantiated factual basis, that the cause of truth, peace, justice and democracy will advance any further, nor will the cause of trust in the words of political leaders.

Michel Wieviorka

[1] See in particular the appeals and forums: https://blogs.mediapart.fr/pour-la-liberation-de-josu-urrutikoetxea/blog.
Josu Urrutikoetxea was imprisoned twice in France, from 1989 to 1996 and from 16 May 2019 to 30 July 2020, and in Spain, from 1996 to 2000, without ever being convicted, which allowed him to be elected twice to the Basque Autonomous Parliament in 1999 and 2001.

Op-Ed published on February 8, 2021 by the French weekly L'Express

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