Safe Passage

British diplomat Jonathan Powell, an international expert in conflict resolution, speaks out about the case of Josu Urrutikoetxea, a major contributor to the end of the conflict in the Basque Country, just a few days before his trial.

President Macron was criticised in recent months for meeting leaders of Hezbollah in Beirut, given their international designation as terrorists. But in fact, he did exactly the right thing. How else do we propose to make peace with our enemies unless we talk to them? That is what we have learned again and again in trying to end armed conflicts around the world.

On 7 July 1972 the British government secretly flew an IRA delegation from Belfast to a military base in London. The delegation included a young Gerry Adams, who had just been released from jail for the occasion, and Martin McGuinness. They were driven into London in grand official cars, which particularly impressed the young men, to a private flat in Chelsea’s Cheyne Walk, to meet a British Cabinet Minister, Willie Whitelaw, and discuss peace. This was not an episode of ‘Le Bureau des Légendes’, but real life. And as so often in real life, it was a failure. The two sides could not agree, but the British still flew the IRA men back to Belfast and returned them to their homes rather than trying to arrest them.

The meeting actually led to an increase in violence rather than the end of it. But the two sides continued to talk and 26 years later Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were present in the room when the Good Friday Agreement was concluded and ‘The Troubles’ finally ended.

This pattern has been repeated again and again in our history since at least 1919, when Prime Minister Lloyd George said he would never speak to the ‘murder gang’ that was the IRA. Two years later he was seeking out their leader, Michael Collins, to conclude a treaty with him. It was the same with the PLO travelling secretly to Oslo, the South African National Intelligence Service meeting secretly with Nelson Mandela, and the secret meetings between representatives of the Spanish government and ETA in Geneva in 2005-7. All these efforts ended with peace breaking out.

If we can accept that such secret contacts are necessary to end bloody insurgencies then we have to accept the means to bring them about too. We have to give the leaders of armed groups safe passage to get to the negotiations and back again even if we regard them as terrorists. In Colombia it was the ICRC who exfiltrated the FARC leaders from the jungle and took them to Havana to start secret negotiations with the Colombian government, and took them back again when they wanted to return to consult their supporters on the terms of the agreement. It is essential for leaders of armed groups to regularly consult with their supporters in person or they won’t be able to carry them along in a final agreement requiring difficult compromises, and we end up with splinter terrorist groups carrying on the violence.

In Doha now, negotiations are taking place between the Afghan Islamic Republic and Taliban leaders who have been UN black listed for decades. The rules have been waived to permit them to travel because the international community needs them there if a lasting peace is to be concluded. And they are allowed to go back to Pakistan, as Mullah Baradar did a few weeks ago to consult with other Taliban leaders, even though he was personally under sanctions. Even the Afghan government has offered the Taliban safe passage. In the search to remove the last blockage to peace talks three members of the Taliban arrived in Kabul on 31 March to negotiate the practical details of the release of Taliban prisoners and were hosted there by the government. Their mission failed but they were allowed to return to Doha with safe passage even though fighting was still going on.

The Houthi leaders in Yemen were given safe passage to leave San’aa Sana’a to travel to Stockholm for the peace talks in 2018 and to return once the negotiations ended without anyone trying to harass or arrest them because that was the only way to solve the problem of the siege of the port of Al Hudaydah.[Hudaydah. It was essential to have the Houthis in the room if there was to be a ceasefire and to try to stop the haemorrhaging of civilian lives.

The leader of the Maoist National Democratic Front of the Philippines and his staff were given safe passage by the government in the Joint Agreement of Safety and Immunity Guarantees in 1995. Thisprovided for “free and unhindered passage in all areas in the Philippines, and in travelling to and from the Philippines in connection with the performance of their duties in the negotiations”, as well as immunity for “all duly accredited persons from surveillance, harassment, search, arrest, detention, prosecution and interrogation or any other similar punitive actions” in relation to “all acts and utterances made in the course of and pursuant to the purposes of the peace negotiations”. Identity cards were issued, specifying their role in the peace talks and the physical traits unique to the holder. It did not result in a successful peace agreement, but it did make negotiations possible.

Safe passage of the representatives of the armed groups is therefore a requirement in virtually every peace negotiation around the world. And yet Jose Urrutikoetxea, an ETA representative who played a key role in the peace negotiations with the Spanish government in 2005-7, and publicly announced the dissolution of ETA in 2018 in Geneva, marking the final end of one of the bloodier armed struggles in Europe, has been languishing in jail in France. He is suffering from a severe illness and has been released on compassionate grounds but he is back in court on 22 and 23 February. Being in his 70s and in the midst of a health crisis, he faces the prospect of ending his days in jail unless a French court decides otherwise.

Leaving aside the merits of his individual case, sending to jail the representative of an armed group who has been operating under safe passage to conduct peace negotiations sets a terrible precedent for all future peace talks. If such safe passage is disrespected in one case by one government, what is the guarantee worth in future negotiations with other governments? If we acknowledge we need to talk to our enemies, why will they talk to us next time if we put a previous peace negotiator in jail for participating in those negotiations. The representatives in all the other negotiations I have listed were not immediately hunted down the moment the talks ended, unless of course the armed group returned to war, which ETA did not, in large part due to his influence.

This matters because all negotiations with armed groups demand the ability for their representatives to travel with confidence they will not be arrested, otherwise they will not attend. And if they do not attend, and if we cannot negotiate with them, we will not be able to end the conflicts.

Safe passage for the representatives of such groups must be honoured when given or there will be no more peace agreements to the many of the bloody conflicts still raging around the world.

Jonathan Powell is a former British diplomat, Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Tony Blair and his government's chief negotiator in Northern Ireland from 1997 to 2007 and the current director of Inter Mediate, a UK NGO working on the resolution of armed conflict around the world.

Op-Ed published on February 12, 2021 by the French national daily newspaper La Croix

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