Report on the seminar "Proscription and Human Rights in the European Union"

by David Morgan, Peace in Kurdistan Campaign

A seminar on the theme of "Proscription and Human Rights in the European Union" organised by CAMPACC, the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers and Basque Solidarity Campaign, took place on 9 July at Birkbeck College.*) This is the second seminar under the title "The Basque Country and Northern Ireland: Self-determination, Procsription and Human Rights".

The successful meeting attracted a large and varied audience whose members from different communities, such as Irish, Basque, Kurdish and others, made constructive contributions during the lively discussions that followed the two main presentations.

Two thoughtful and informative talks were delivered by Julen Arzuaga (a lawyer from Behatokia Human Rights Observatory, in the Basque Country) and Alex Fitch ( a researcher representing Peace in Kurdistan Campaign & CAMPACC). Lochlinn Parker, a lawyer from CAMPACC, chaired the session.

The seminar raised the question of the limits of the historical process of "decolonisation" suggesting that it had stopped at the borders of Europe, which had meant that minority nationalities such as the Basques and Irish had not achieved full recognition and self-determination unlike other peoples.

Opening the seminar, Julen Arzuaga provided a brief outline of the struggle of the Basques in Spain and said that the repressive security responses of the modern Spanish state differed little from the repression under Franco.

Julen's career has been spent defending Basque political activists detained and charged during the years of political conflict which continued today. He stressed that special legislation under Spain's constitution had allowed for the criminalisation of a wide range of non-violent activities, including cultural activities, if they were deemed supportive of a proscribed terrorist organisation. While use of violence had been a part of the Basque struggle, most activities were entirely non-violent, although these were increasingly deemed to be terrorism related. Julen had himself faced prosecution for representing his clients, because they were charged with terrorist related offences and he was seen as guilty by association with them. (In this respect, clear parallels emerged with the similar treatment faced by lawyers representing Kurds in Turkey).

The definition of what constitutes terrorism had been widened to include activities that the state sees as aiming to subvert the constitution of the country. This means that if Basques campaign politically for their national rights then they are virtually automatically seen as engaging in terrorist actions, Julen stated.

In terms of background, the Basque Country (Euskal Herria) is located on both sides of the border between Spain and France. The majority of the three million Basques live within the Spanish state. The Basque people have waged a centuries-long struggle for self-determination from Spanish rule. On 15 February 1990, by an absolute majority of 38 votes, the Basque Parliament proclaimed the right of the Basque People to self-determination, including the lawful authority of its citizens to take decisions, freely and democratically.

At present, Julen, said, Basques were being detained and tortured on a large scale in Spain today. He estimated that 7000 had alleged torture in detention and said that the Spanish government had declared itself proud of its record of arresting "one terrorist every two days".

The Spanish prison regime was one that Kurds and Turkish activists in Turkey would be familiar with as it had some similarities with the isolation regime inside Turkish prisons. According to Julen, detention was seen by both the Spanish and the French authorities as a means to break the will and sense of collective solidarity of detainees; they were held in isolation until they broke down and confessed or renounced their views, he said.

It can be mentioned that Batasuna, the Basque pro-independence political party, was outlawed in 2003. Recent elections, held on 1 March 2009, were far from free or democratic. Some 20% of the Basque electorate were disenfranchised when the Supreme Court banned two more parties, Democracy 3 Million and Askatasuna (Freedom), from standing candidates. On 23 March this year, the Spanish investigating judge Baltasar Garzon, who is waging a crusade against Basque nationalism, filed "terrorism"' charges against 44 pro-independence activists. The activists are alleged to be members of banned parties, including Batasuna, the Communist Party of the Basque Lands (PCTV) and Basque Nationalist Action (ANV). Among those charged is the Mayor of Mondragon.

Julen warned that in Europe today, as the Basque case illustrates, peaceful political activity is being seen as terrorist action under the offence of "glorifying terrorism". This was a trend throughout Europe and not restricted to the Basque community. Also under the law on political parties, those organisations that will not pledge to uphold the constitution can be put outside the law which means that any party that opposes the current territorial limits of the state can be deemed illegal. This makes it virtually impossible for Basques to campaign legally for their cause, but it could also stifle political debate more generally and could restrict parties subscribing to Republican ideas for example.

Julen urged people to make the connections and recognise that repressive legislation posed a threat to the civil liberties of everyone.

In his speech, Alex Fitch examined the case of the Kurds in Turkey within the context of the war on terror, which he described as an ideological power game. Although it had proven to be a failed experiment in that it had not stifled dissent, a rethink on the effectiveness of the war on terrorism strategy was still officially entirely off the agenda. In the case of the Kurds, the Turkish state had signally failed to defeat their struggle by use of repressive and military measures alone. The aim had been to eradicate them rather than seek a lasting solution. What had been done to the Kurds had amounted to "cultural genocide" he stated, they were left with the status of a "non-people".

Alex reminded everyone that dissent is always regarded as posing a direct threat to authority and that there was nothing new in a state deeming its enemies terrorists or subversives, but what was happening today was a widening of the net; now environmental campaigners were routinely described as terrorists, for example.

In Turkey no space has been permitted for debate of the real issues and the root causes of the Kurdish conflict. Despite the fact that the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) had put forward numerous peace proposals and made various unilateral ceasefire offers, the party had been one of the first organisations listed as a banned terrorist organisation in the UK and EU; in fact they had been targeted as terrorists well before September 11 which is often used as justification for anti-terrorist measures. Furthermore, even though the PKK has renounced the use of violence and said that it does not want to change the borders of Turkey, it is still deemed a terrorist group, Alex said. This had led to a policy deadlock with no movement from the Turkish side apart from resort to repression. By collaborating with Turkey, the UK and EU were not helping to find a solution and unless there is a change of policy then it would be unlikely that Turkey will change and the conflict would continue indefinitely.


A report of both seminars will be published in the next issue of "Socialist Lawyer".

A video of the seminars and transcripts of some speeches will also be available soon.

Return to the main page about The Basque Country and Northern Ireland seminars