When they met during their fellowships at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in 2005, a lasting friendship was born. But as Pierre Hazan, a Swiss political scientist and former journalist, got to know Gorka Espiau Idoiaga, a peace activist from the Basque country of Spain, they had no idea that their friendship would bring them back together years later to help foster a breakthrough for peace in Western Europe’s last guerrilla conflict.

When they met during their fellowships at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in 2005, a lasting friendship was born. But as Pierre Hazan, a Swiss political scientist and former journalist, got to know Gorka Espiau Idoiaga, a peace activist from the Basque country of Spain, they had no idea that their friendship would bring them back together years later to help foster a breakthrough for peace in Western Europe’s last guerrilla conflict.

The breakthrough came in October when the Basque separatist group ETA made an unprecedented announcement: “the definitive cessation of its armed activity.” It opens the way for efforts to disarm ETA voluntarily, build confidence between separatists and the central government in Madrid and normalize politics in the Basque country. It has already dramatically lowered tensions in a land where bodyguards became a necessity of life for many.

ETA’s renunciation of the gun and the bomb reflects deep trends in Basque society, above all the overwhelming rejection of violence in pursuit of Basque independence or greater autonomy. Many analysts also cite an unrelenting campaign by the Spanish and French governments against the leaders of ETA, which was founded in 1959 during the repressive dictatorship of General Francisco Franco and means “Basque Homeland and Freedom.” Hundreds of arrests and prosecutions over the years have thinned the ranks of hard-core separatists.

Yet the breakthrough was also stewarded by a multinational group of specialists who sensed a gathering opportunity to make peace on the Basque issue and to draw on the legacies of settling civil conflicts in South Africa and Northern Ireland. Those specialists, in what came to be known as the International Contact Group (ICG) for the Basque Conflict, held months of conversations with an array of Basque political and social groups. They eventually arranged a high-profile conference in the Basque city of San Sebastian on October 17 that, with some tight political choreography, would lead to ETA’s historic announcement just three days later.

The two former Jennings Randolph senior fellows at USIP, Hazan and Espiau, played intertwining roles in the Basque peace drama this fall.

After leaving USIP in 2006, the pair stayed in close contact as their careers proceeded in different directions. Hazan, an author on issues of post-conflict or transitional justice, is now a lecturer at the University of Geneva. Espiau became a special adviser for peacebuilding to the Basque regional president immediately after leaving the Institute, drawing on his earlier experience as spokesman for a pro-peace movement for dialogue in the Basque country known as Elkarri. Espiau, now working in the field of social innovation, stayed involved in peace efforts even after leaving his government post.

In the past year their paths would again intersect—to help give form to growing demands to end the violence that has left more than 800 dead and spawned fear and mayhem across the Basque country, other parts of Spain and even France.

Espiau had been helping Brian Currin, a South African human rights lawyer who was exploring prospects for international mediation in the Basque conflict. Currin had helped to establish South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and has been playing a role in supporting Northern Ireland’s political transformation. Espiau encouraged Currin to invite Hazan to be one of the six members of the ICG when it was set up in early 2011. Hazan accepted the invitation, and with his expertise on the roles of memory, victims and reconciliation in overcoming conflict, he began work on those and other issues. Espiau, for his part, operated behind the scenes as an informal advisor to the ICG, helping to set up the pivotal October conference.

The ICG was able to accelerate its work after ETA declared a permanent ceasefire last January. ETA prisoners in Spain and France later endorsed the call for a ceasefire. The Spanish government welcomed the moves but insisted on a permanent rejection of violence—and that ETA disarm and disband.

As pressure mounted on ETA from both supporters and others in the Basque country, the ICG staged a high-profile conference in San Sebastian on October 17. It featured a roster of international notables publicly calling on ETA to declare the definitive cessation of all armed action and to request talks with the governments of Spain and France. The notables included former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan; former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Bruntland; former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern; former French Interior Minister Pierre Joxe; Gerry Adams, leader of the Irish republican party Sinn Fein; and Jonathan Powell, the UK’s former peace negotiator for Northern Ireland. The group also urged Spain and France to agree to talks on the consequences of the conflict and for all parties to promote reconciliation and assist victims.

On October 20, ETA announced its agreement, with language that mimicked key parts of the ICG declaration.

The twin moves reflected months of sensitive political spadework in the Basque country by members of the ICG and those advising it.

Both Hazan and Espiau credit their USIP fellowships with helping to prepare them as practical peacebuilders. “USIP was instrumental for me to get a better grasp of peacebuilding and transitional justice,” said Hazan, who wrote an Institute special report on Morocco’s truth and reconciliation efforts during his year in Washington. “It really helped me move forward.” Meanwhile, his budding friendship with Espiau spurred a new interest in the Basque issue: “I knew nothing about the Basque conflict. But I learned a lot from Gorka, and I began to understand the complexities of this conflict.”

Espiau also wrote a special report during his stay at the Institute, his on “new ideas and prospects for peace” in the Basque conflict. “To have the opportunity to be away from that [conflict] even for a year was liberating and stimulating,” he said. “It helped me a lot to gain confidence in the work we had been doing [at the pro-dialogue group Elkarri] for a decade….USIP gave me a global perspective to see that much of what we were doing was good.”

Said Espiau, “USIP was the only international institution that six years ago decided it was worthwhile to help the Basque conflict. USIP helped us in the most difficult of times.” Hazan sees much the same benefit. “USIP helped me understand how the exchange of ideas can benefit the way we see a conflict and how we can influence its outcome,” he said. “USIP changed our lives and, in doing so, contributed—hopefully, a bit—to improve the situation in this beautiful Basque country.”

That such fellowships can contribute to future peacemaking is well understood at the Institute, too. “Good relationships have been forged here,” noted Pamela Aall, provost of USIP’s Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding, which runs the Jennings Randolph program. “Their story speaks to the value of getting people out of their conflicts and making these connections.”

Both Hazan and Espiau acknowledge that much of the heavy lifting for a comprehensive peace in the Basque country lies ahead.

Security concerns remain central. The ICG has already created an international group of security experts to monitor the ETA ceasefire. ETA has agreed to cooperate with it; the current Spanish government does not recognize it but does not oppose it either. The situation is likely to evolve now that a new Spanish government took office on December 21, and discussions on how a disarmament mechanism should be structured lie in the future.

Another key issue is ensuring that democratic means are available to nationalist-minded Basques—namely, that new political parties that reject violence are permitted to organize and operate legally. The ICG is seeking the legalization of Sortu, a Basque nationalist political party created in February that condemns the use of violence but has been denied legal status by the Spanish Supreme Court. The ICG also hopes to facilitate other confidence-building measures, such as encouraging the Spanish government to move convicted Basque prisoners closer to the Basque country and to consider the early release of ill and elderly ETA prisoners serving prison time. An ICG statement in December welcomed “the first tentative steps” by the Spanish government on terminally ill ETA prisoners but said it is awaiting further moves by Madrid on the relocation of prisoners and on other issues.

The ICG, said Hazan, will promote dialogues within Basque civil society and the region’s political parties about the causes of the long-running conflict and recognition of the suffering of victims—issues in which he specializes. Hazan said the effort will aim to develop a “road map” for people involved in the Basque conflict to resolve their differences. Adds Espiau, “We need to understand how we can bring the narratives closer. Depending on whom you ask about the conflict, the stories are totally different. But how you build the future depends upon the narrative of the past.”

Hazan describes the ICG’s role as “assisting in the transition from an armed conflict to a political one.” Espiau, for his part, believes it may take a decade to normalize politics in the Basque country, but he regards ETA’s recent declaration as irreversible: “Personally, I’m totally convinced there is no turning back.”

Even so, a comprehensive peace will require much more effort from all involved, both agree. “Violence might have disappeared,” said Espiau, “but the elements that keep us divided might remain.”

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