How should ETA destroy its arsenal?

The terrorist group, its political wing and the Spanish government are all at odds over disarmament

Some of the weapons shown by ETA to a verification commission in February.
Some of the weapons shown by ETA to a verification commission in February.EFE

Thirty-two months after Basque terrorist organization ETA brought its attacks to an official end, no progress has been made over the group’s final breakup.

The main hurdle is the when and the how of disarmament. Given the government’s refusal to actively participate in this process, ETA and its former political wing (now represented by the party Sortu) disagree on how to proceed.

ETA announced a definitive ceasefire in October 2011, bringing to an end over four decades of attacks and extortion that resulted in more than 800 deaths and thousands of injured.

Radical leftist nationalists, known in the Basque language as the abertzale, support the idea of unilateral disarmament that would include releasing a map showing the locations of weapons caches, and possibly having ETA destroy the material itself.

Another option would be to wait for the conservative Popular Party (PP) government of Mariano Rajoy to change its mind, an unlikely possibility. Alternatively, ETA could hold off until the general elections of 2015 to see if the PP loses its absolute majority.

The Rajoy administration has decided not to make a move until ETA announces its complete dissolution

On February 21, a committee of international mediators announced that ETA had sealed a small part of its arsenal as a way of showing its commitment to complete disarmament.

The International Verification Commission (IVC) called this step “significant and credible” even though members did not check the veracity of ETA’s claim. The Spanish government called it “an exercise in theatrics” and said only law enforcement agencies can verify whether ETA truly decommissions its weapons or not.

Sortu would like to get the issue dealt with over the summer, since the existence of ETA, though residual, continues to be a clear burden to its own political goals.

Disarmament will certainly figure prominently on the agenda when Prime Minister Rajoy meets Basque premier Iñigo Urkullu in the coming days. The meeting was postponed when King Juan Carlos announced his abdication and Felipe was proclaimed Spain’s new head of state.

Felipe González acted as a mediator when the Colombian guerrilla group M-19 turned in its weapons

Urkullu, of the moderate Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), wants to get the central government involved in the disarmament process in order to accelerate ETA’s dissolution and “guarantee an orderly end” to terrorism. The premier feels that only an outside verification can ensure that the entire arsenal gets inventoried and supervised, and also minimize the risk of an internal split by dissenters within ETA.

The IVC has volunteered to continue overseeing the decommissioning process, but has warned that it will no longer participate in any more similar events. The fiasco of the February announcement – which involved ETA’s promise to seal off two rifles, two revolvers, two hand grenades, 300 bullets and under 17 kilos of explosives, out of an estimated total of over 500 long and short-range guns and several tons of explosives – damaged the credibility of the commission and of the Basque government, which had supported it. Any further verifications will require support from the Spanish and French governments, the IVC said.

But the IVC remains committed to the process because of ETA’s own commitment to unilateral disarmament, something that was “unthinkable” until recently.

More information
ETA has put part of its arsenal out of use, says verification commission
ETA “planning gradual disarmament,” say ‘abertzale’ sources
ETA members took “decommissioned” weapons with them
ETA announces end to violence

However, the IVC is facing a unique situation. This is the first time that an affected government is refusing to actively help disarm a terrorist group acting in its territory. Every other similar process has involved the terrorist organization, the government and an independent third party. In the 1980s, for instance, the Spanish government of Felipe González acted as a mediator when the Colombian guerrilla group M-19 turned in its weapons.

In the case of Northern Ireland, seven years elapsed between the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and the end of the disarmament process in July 2005. Between 1998 and 2001, international observers visited the weapons caches, although no pictures or videos were taken, and the weapons were decommissioned between 2001 and 2005. In theory, this is what verifiers are trying to do with ETA as well.

But the Rajoy administration has decided not to make a move until ETA announces its complete dissolution. Meanwhile, the French government may have different views, but it is unlikely to take any steps that might anger its southern neighbor: bilateral relations take priority over any other concerns.

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