Another bloody waste

The news that Basque separatist organisation ETA has announced an allegedly permanent ceasefire in its terrorist campaign doesn’t seem to have attracted much attention outside Spain. Still, it’s worth repeating points that seemingly need to be made again and again.

First, despite costing hundreds of lives and blighting tens of thousands more, ETA has achieved nothing of note. Arguably, the campaign has achieved a modest increase in the autonomy of the provincial government, an achievement of the kind that no one cares much about when it is the result of peaceful democratic processes. Equally arguably, the reaction against ETA has led to stronger central control. Either way, the outcome does not justify the loss of even one life, let alone thirty years of war.

But suppose ETA had been more successful. In this context, success would have meant a bloody civil war leading eventually to the establishment of a separate Basque state. Is there any reasonable calculation on which this would have been a worthwhile outcome? Unless it wanted to be a new North Korea, the Basque state would have had to join the EU, open borders with Spain and France, give full civil rights to Spanish speakers and in general act much like an autonomous Spanish/French province (see Andorra).

Turning to the other side of the war, it does not appear that repeated resort to extralegal repression by the achieved anything more than would have been achieved by patient application of ordinary criminal law.

The general lesson is that wars of choice are almost always disastrous, whether they are launched by states, would-be states or revolutionary movements. When the option of peaceful agitation is available, it is almost always the best choice.

15 thoughts on “Another bloody waste

  1. Only someone with a restricted definition of success, and more particularly failure, could take that sort of view. If nothing else, it seeks to apply the sort of reasoning that works in a cost benefit analysis in a different sphere.

    Hint: “good” is susceptible to both an engineering and an ethical interpretation, and it is very easy to drift from one to the other in the course of reasoning, if not careful.

  2. JQ — Whether the violence was effective or not is not the main issue for a community enduring oppression. The issue is: What more effective alternative course of action is there? If a society or community feels oppressed and prejudiced by another community and continued attempts at non-violent methods of persuasion fail to change this situation, what alternative to violence is there?

    From having had this discussion on your blog before, I know the answer you will give is: Keep on with the non-violent methods. And, as I’ve pointed out before, such advice is supercilious and patronising from someone who has not experienced the oppression. I don’t believe any major liberation movement — certainly not the ANC, nor the IRA — adopted violence without great hesitation and much internal debate. In the case of the ANC, the organization adopted violence a full five decades after it was founded. Even after it did so, it was accused by more extreme groups (eg, the PAC) of being a terror-lite organization, only attacking targets with few likely civilian casualties. The IRA endured the same criticism from its more extreme brethren.

    And I contest your claim that the violence was not effective. The regimes running South Africa under apartheid, Spain under Franco and Ulster between partition and direct British rule were not known for their willingness to engage in rational argument with their political opponents. Each of these regimes responded to non-violent protest with violence. Only when the oppressed community took up arms was progress made towards a political settlement. This violence seems pretty effective to me.

  3. Peter, ETA only started terror on a large scale after Franco’s death and replacement by a democratic government, an outcome to which ETA contributed little or nothing. And their “oppression” consisted mainly of not being able to command enough public support to get their preferred outcomes through democratic processes, even after extensive devolution of power.

    On Ulster, is it only the IRA who counts as a national liberation movement, or do you also include the oppressed Protestants, struggling to defend their ancient liberties against the threat of submersion in a united Ireland? I assume you would not be so supercilious and patronising as to condemn their cause without having experienced their oppression. Either way, thirty years of brutal violence has achieved nothing.

    I agree that you can make a plausible exception for the ANC. But as you say, the ANC generally rejected terrorism, and there was clearly no peaceful alternative available to them.

  4. “The general lesson ” in my view is that State sovereignty is an inherent prompter of violence. State borders as they exist now are no more than frozen representations of past violence, and are thus begging to be altered by similar means.

    A view that State borders should be considered fixed also restrains obviously necessary reforms all over the world. The USA is a case in point — it clearly needs to be broken up into a minimum of two separate nations.

  5. John,
    According to the spanish wikipedia the first recorded attack occurred in 1960 followed by another attempt in 1961. In 1964 the ETA congress voted to commit itself to a fully armed struggle. In any case the terrorist campaign began in earnest in 1968, a full seven years before Franco’s death. As for the transition to democracy, it has to be remembered that the first two governments were formed by people who were part of Franco’s regime. Simply because a government gets elected does not necessarily mean that the entire bureaucracy is changed. Additionally the army launched a coup on Adolfo Suarez government – in the minutes after the takeover of the parliament “democratic” spain hung in the balance. This is where King Juan Carlos came through and why republicans like myself will always acknowledge his deeds with admiration. Even when the Socialists won government in the early 80s under Felipe Gonzales the security apparatus was still run by old school militarists that lead to gross human rights violation. Thankfully justice caught up with them and many are now serving long sentences.
    I have always wondered why Spanish Basques wanted independence in the 20th century rather than in earlier centuries. Note that the French aren’t as keen on independence. I came across some data that indicated that basically 60% of Spain’s wealth is in the Basque region and that Madrid has been leeching. In Franco’s time the distortion was even higher.
    As to the success, well hypothetically would any central government have negotiated withe the PNV (the legitimate, peaceful secessionist party) if the ETA had not been pushing? A question that we will probably never know the answer to.
    In practical terms an independent Spanish Basque region would still be a successful economic entity with open borders, etc. etc. However it will also be a xenophobic state for a generation or two. The French basques would not likely join because economically they would be worse off as Paris heavily subsidizes their region. Spain would become another economic basket case and the EU would have to increase its subsidies.
    As an aside what would happen if the Pilbara with all its iron ore mines decides to secede from WA and form a separate state? I suspect that WA’s finances would be shot. Similarly if they secede from Oz.

  6. Thanks for these useful points, Adolfo, and I’m happy to accept correction on when the campaign started.

    It’s still clear, though that, even allowing an earlier start and extending the Franco era to cover his immediate successors, the ETA campaign was mostly fought against democratic Spanish governments, willing to grant substantial autonomy (the general trend in the EU with or without violent agitation, as witness the UK).

    As I mention, the extra-legal response of the security services deserves condemnation along with terrorism, and was, as usual, ineffective or counterproductive.

    I’m not sure if you’re aware, but WA voted to secede from Australia in the 1930s. The vote was ignored and everyone forgot about it.

  7. If I replace ETA with Fretilin and a separate Basque state with an independent East Timor then I wonder if John Quiggin would have the same view.

    The UN declaration of human rights talks about the right to self determination. Too few states (none as far as I can tell) have any formal provision or process for a region to secede peacefully. If the EU ever estabilishes itself under a formal consititution it should tackle this question formally. Lest it end up in a future civil war like other federalist systems have (eg USA, Yugoslavia).

  8. Terje, it could be argued that the EU’s concept of subsidiarity, established in the Maastricht treaty, marks a tentative beginning to the clearly essential process of breaking down the anachronistic notion of absolute sovereignty over entire territories. Without absolute sovereignty, ‘secession’ loses much of its meaning.

  9. “The general lesson is that wars of choice are almost always disastrous, whether they are launched by states, would-be states or revolutionary movements. When the option of peaceful agitation is available, it is almost always the best choice.”


    Are there ever situations where the option of peaceful agitation is not available?


  10. Rabee, I think the example of the ANC in apartheid South Africa is a pretty good one. Black South Africans were denied all civil rights and peaceful protests were met with arrests, torture, massacres and so on.

    Terje, as I’ve argued before, I think there’s an important distinction between resistance to an invasion and wars of choice. Resistance to invasion strengthens the general norm against aggressive war. While not militarily very significant, Fretilin’s continued resistance helped to prevent any widespread recognition of the Indonesian annexation (of course, it didn’t stop Australia).

  11. John,
    You mention that democratic governments were willing to grant substantial autonomy but I am not sure what the central government was willing to cede as the PNV still remains committed to secession and it has basically controlled the regional government since the introduction of democracy. So obviously the PNV wasn’t satisfied as to what was on offer to omit its request for independence.
    I suspect that there is a lack of trust between the basque leadership and the central government plus there is the question of money – given that the basque region is the centre of industrialisation I can’t imagine Madrid willing to give enough autonomy so that the Basques control treasury.
    I don’t believe that you can compare Spain with the UK. The political cultural differences throughout history are enormous. You won’t find a Sir Thomas More or a Burke or an Adam Smith in the political history of Spain; but that is another topic 🙂
    BTW ETA has declared ceasefires before – when it has been infiltrated and when its leadership has been on the run. So the question remains as to why they declared a ceasefire.
    And just in case that I’m giving the impression that I support ETA – no. They have degenerated into an ultra-nationalist fascist terror organisation that even an independent Basque state will have trouble dealing with.
    As for the original question, did they achieve anything? I still don’t know whether the Socialists or the Tories would have conceded anything to the Basques in terms of freedom of expression without the guns being aimed at the government institutions.

  12. I’m very much with our host on this one. I’d add that even when violence is justified, attacks on military targets or political leaders are likely to be more effective in the long run (as well as more ethical) than those attacks that kill many civilians.

    The comparison of the ANC and PAC is instructive here – the PAC criticised the ANC for not being tough enough, but it’s pretty clear who played a more constructive role in ending apartheid.

  13. John,

    A fair enough distincition. However at what point should the struggle cease in the name of futility? And what of states that join a juristiction willingly and then latter on down the track have second thoughts (eg the southern states in the USA).

    My personal view is that if enough people in any defined geographic area sign a petition calling for secesion then the central government should be compelled to put it to a referendum within that region. There may need to be some safeguards (eg two successful referendums at least 12 months apart but no more than two years apart) to reduce the incident of hot headed secesion and to allow the central government the chance to redeem itself. One might also put some question marks on how small a region or population can actually secede to form a viable state.

    I think that his would better represent the spirit of the UN declaration of human rights that says people have the right to self determination?


  14. “I came across some data that indicated that basically 60% of Spain’s wealth is in the Basque region”

    I know little about the Spanish economy, and even less about the Basque one, but this seems extremely dodgy. Adolfo carefully referred to “the Basque region”, not “the Basques”, which makes me very suspicious of the definitions being used.

    If it were true in any meaningful sense, we’d expect most individuals living in the region to be far richer than those in other regions. Which raises 2 points:
    1) is it so?
    2) if it is, it seems bloody silly for them to have endangered those riches for some very abstract political issues about devolution and for having their children taught a language at school. And bloody despicable for them to have done it by killing people.

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