Ingrained assumptions

It wasn't too much of a surprise that ETA announced their ceasefire this week, for some sort of announcement had been expected for some time. More telling was the reaction to it.

One advantage of the video being released exclusively to the BBC was that the BBC made the most of their scoop, and that meant that the heavier papers tried to keep up. But there were some aspects about the coverage that really weren't up to standard, and I'd like to pick up on some of those first.


The map above is from this page on the BBC website. The geography is accurate enough, it shows the Basque Autonomous Community, alongside Navarre in Spain and Iparralde (the northern side) in France. Together they make up Euskadi, the Basque Country. The problem is that the BBC caption suggests that it is only ETA who claim more than the BAC as part of Euskadi. That's not true; most Basques do. Some Basques might not necessarily want to see it as a unified independent country, but most Basques recognize these shaded areas as their homeland, certainly in historical and cultural terms, even though they might disagree over the political status of the various provinces.

Then on this page, there was a paragraph which says:

But despite the fact that Spain's Basque country today enjoys more autonomy than any other – it has its own parliament, police force, controls education and collects its own taxes – ETA and its hardline supporters have remained determined to push for full independence.

In the video on this page, the BBC reporter goes over the same list, but follows it up with this tagline:

But none of this has been good enough for ETA.

Again, part of it is true. The Basque Autonomous Community does have more autonomy than any of the other Communities: control of taxation is one thing it has that Catalunya does not have. But once again, why does the BBC not say that there are many more Basques who are equally determined to push for full independence, but who reject using violence as a way to pursue it?

So on two counts the BBC seems determined to present a picture of Basque nationalism and the desire for Basque independence as something limited to ETA and those who support it. Either that, or its ingrained assumptions about nationalism lead its journalists to write things that don't stand up to scrutiny, and its editors to allow them to stand.


There is a certain two-facedness about the way states think that they are allowed to pursue their political ends by means of force while others are not, and perhaps that's why the BBC report in the way they do. Not so much out of sloppy journalism, but simply to reflect the assumptions that are ingrained into the way that the British establishment looks at things.

As an example of that way of thinking, our Coroners Courts routinely deliver verdicts of "unlawful killing" for service personnel killed in Afghanistan. But what on earth is remotely "unlawful" about killing an enemy solder in your own country? I don't want to in any way detract from these deaths, but every soldier knows that being killed is one of the risks of going to war, and each is brave enough to accept that being killed is a possibility. Yet if a exploding a bomb that kills a British soldier is routinely being described as "unlawful", then surely the bombs we drop from aircraft to kill those who are fighting against us must be unlawful too. What else but a two-faced self-righteousness would see it as lawful for our forces to kill their enemy, but unlawful for that enemy to fight back? Perhaps pointing the finger to condemn those who fight us is merely designed to make the UK's decision to use violence to support its own political ends seem "lawful"? It's the sort of sophistry that any child should be able to see through.

So we're embroiled in double standards about violence. As I've said before, I do think there are times when using violence might be justified, but I would never condone the use of indiscriminate violence. That means I have no time for those tactics when used by ETA—nor for their network of intimidation and extortion, either—although I fully support the independence they are fighting for.


So what is going to change as a result of this declaration? Right now, probably nothing. The Spanish reaction to the ceasefire was to dismiss it:

Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, Spain's interior minister, said, "The Interior Ministry will keep its anti-terrorism policy intact, absolutely intact. We are not going to change that policy one bit, not a single comma," he told Spanish National Television.

Independent, 7 September 2010

But that's not really where the problem lies. The problem is not Spain's attitude to terrorism, but Spain's attitude to democracy. It's all too easy to say that ETA should stop using violence as a means to gaining its political aims, but ignore the fact that Spain makes it quite explicit, through its Constitution, that it can use violence for its political aim of keeping Spain together. It's all too easy to say that the cause of Basque independence should be pursued purely by democratic means, but pointless to say it if you then close off the normal democratic means by which it can be pursued.

Spain is at fault on two counts: first, it has denied the people in the BAC the opportunity to vote in a referendum to determine the future they want; and second, it routinely bans the political parties through which those that have supported violence as a means to independence could express their support for the same political goals through the ballot box instead.

As for the first, nothing that's likely to happen in Euskadi will change that attitude much. Violence and democracy are not things that either the Spanish Government nor most Spanish people can distinguish between. In their eyes Basque independence is too tied to violence for a concession to democracy not to be seen as a concession to violence. That's why I think it's far more likely that the right to democratic self-determination will depend on what happens in Catalunya. If the pro-independence parties and groups win the Catalan election in November this year and unilaterally declare independence, Spain will either have to accept that independence or try to negotiate a completely new constitutional arrangement—some sort of federalism or confederalism—with the nations within it. In that case, it is unthinkable that the Basques would not get the same.


But, much as I would like to see that happen, they might not get a majority; and if they don't, it's hard to imagine why Spain would want to change anything. Yet one thing that has struck me in the last few months is that the Spanish Authorities are not really making any warning statements about the election. They're not saying, "You can't turn the election into a matter of independence." Instead they seem to accept that people can vote for whatever parties they want, no matter what platform they're standing on, even if it is to unilaterally declare independence.

Now, this might well be because they reckon the Independentists won't get a majority, and they will then use the result as proof that the majority of Catalans want to stay part of Spain. That will effectively knock Catalan independence back by a few years ... but it's pretty blindingly obvious what the Basques will then do in their next elections in 2013. Having played it one way in 2010, the Spanish State will find it very hard to come up with a reason for doing something different three years later.

And the result should be positive. Juan José Ibarretxe would hardly have called for the 2008 Referendum if he didn't think it would be won, nor would Spain have blocked it unless they thought the same. The maths from the 2009 Basque election is pretty simple:

•  just under 39% voted for the centre-right EAJ-PNV, the Basque National Party.

•  just under 10% voted for the two pro-independence left parties that reject violence, Eusko Alkartasuna and Aralar. EA, alongside Plaid Cymru and the SNP, are part of the EFA in the European Parliament.

•  and just under 10% would vote for various left wing independence parties alleged to be sympathetic to ETA, although these keep changing as they get banned. In the 2009 election, D3M and Askatasuna were banned at the very last moment, after the ballot papers had been printed, and their votes were counted as void. There were over 100,000 void votes in total compared with a normal void vote of under 5,000. This was about 9% of the vote.

It's worth commenting that if the last minute ban had not been imposed, D3M would have won maybe six seats. These seats made all the difference to the balance of the Basque Parliament, and resulted in the socialist PSE-EE and right wing PP being able to form a government. Of course it is never presented in that way, the first non-nationalist government in 30 years was instead presented as evidence of a fall in support for independence.

Such blatant gerrymandering shows the lengths to which the Spanish authorities will go to deny democracy to those who want independence. But it could only have been done under the pretext of an alleged connexion to ETA. The mere mention of the word "terrorism" now seems to be accepted as an excuse for governments all over the world to do draconian things like this. And that is the importance of ETA's declaration. In itself, it will not achieve any response from the Spanish State, and we shouldn't expect it to. But—if ETA can indeed restrain itself from using violence until the 2013 election—this declaration will make it very much harder for the Spanish to use terrorism as an excuse to once more interfere with the democratic process.

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Adam Higgitt said...

Without wishing to detract from the theme of your piece, the coroner is not there to pronounce on the lawfulness or otherwise of actions by the UK's armed forces in Afghanistan (and, to my knowledge, has never done so). So it is not right to allege double standards here, since the process you mention only ever pronounces on one type of casualty from that conflict.

The coroner is asked to hold an inquest into deaths that occur under a number of circumstances, one of which is a violent death. Although a narrative verdict can be passed, the verdict of unlawful killing is a broad one that also includes manslaughter. The example you give of exploding a bomb would not, constitute lawful killing, and it is hard to see what other verdicts might apply.


Anonymous said...

Good piece MH. The Spanish state and ETA are two sides of the same coin. The Spanish state hide behind the Constitution, implying that is some god-given document which is impossible to change, though, the recent Spanish law on same sex marriage etc implied that isn't such a problem. The Spanish say it's 'unconstitutional' for the Basques, Catalans, Galicians to become independent.

The Spanish state refused to allow the Ibarretxe plan to go ahead - in UK terms this is refusing the John Hume/SDLP position in NI.

BBC's sloppy journalism as you point out, fail to state that the majority of Basque voters support pro-independence parties.

A section of Basque society believe Spain will never allow the Basques to vote democratically in a referendum on independence. The Spanish state/constitution confirms this and goes further in stating that the armed forces of Spain have a constitutional right to uphold the unity of the Spanish state - what ever the democratic wish .... we're those people to be given the right to use their democratic mandate to vote for independence (which they aren't!).

So, the Basques can't vote for independence and they can't use violence. The Spanish vote down a peaceful resolution (Ibarretxe plan for free-association, independence light if you like).

If Spain said the Basques had a right to vote on their constitutional future (as the Good Friday Agreement does in the case of the citizens of NI) then ETA would just vanish. They'd have no legitimacy ... like the Real IRA and other splinter groups in NI. But the Spanish state won't allow this democratic right and don't want ETA to go away.

As a Welshman I also find it deeply offensive to hear the 'they have a lot of powers all ready, what more do these silly little people want?! Know your place Welsh, Basque, Scots, be grateful for the parent state'.

I'll leave aside the morality of these states, Spain, UK, France, Germany which have cause genocide across the globe in their name.


MH said...

I don't think you've detracted from my theme at all, Adam, for it is true that no coroner here has any responsibility to pronounce on the deaths of an Afghani. Nonetheless, let's explore your reasoning a little more deeply.

Let's imagine that a British pilot has just dropped bombs on his target, killing some Afghanis. The plane then develops some trouble, he bales out and is captured.

What would the "coroner" over there say? If he applied the same standards, he would say that those who were killed by the bomb he exploded were "unlawfully killed". And it appears you would agree, since you've just said, "exploding a bomb would not constitute lawful killing, and it is hard to see what other verdicts might apply."

British coroners have (one example is here) said that those who killed a British solder would face murder charges if caught. So let's say that the same thing happens to our hapless British pilot. If we apply those standards, he would indeed be guilty of murder if the bomb he exploded killed the Taliban soldiers that were its intended target.

If you accept that, then I will happily concede that double standards are not at issue ... but somehow, just somehow, I don't think you or anybody else would.

In the course of war, it is no more "unlawful" to kill a British soldier than it is for a British soldier to kill his enemy. It is nothing but two-faced self-righteousness to think that one is different from the other.

MH said...

Macsen, I agree. The attitude that people in Euskadi or Catalunya should be satisfied with (or even grateful for) what they've been "given" stinks. But that is the inevitable result of a mentality that views sovereignty as a "top down" arrangement. It is much better to view sovereignty as something that resides with the people.

Adam Higgitt said...

I’m not sure you test works, MH, at least not to me. For a charge of double standards to stick, it would be necessary, in this example, for the coroner's court to pass a verdict of unlawful killing in the instance of the death of a British soldier at the hands of the Taliban, but decline to pass such a verdict in a comparable case of the death of a Talib at the hands of a British solider. No such instance exists because no such latter coroner's verdicts exist. For there to be double standards, there must be a double. Or to put it another way, it needs to be shown that the same rules are being applied by the same person or institution in different ways, according to illegitimate criteria.

Whether UK coroners should be passing verdicts on British soldiers killed in Afghanistan in an interesting jurisprudential point. My understanding is that that the legal status of the Taliban and other such groups does not entitle them under international law to take part in armed conflict, or at least not in a way that ascribes them recognition as combatants. This, I suspect, is the reason why the coroner can be asked to investigate. The British soldiers are, in effect, British citizens dying out with a formally recognised conflict.

If there indeed are double standards at work, I suggest they are rooted in this internationally defined status, rather than in the verdicts passed by UK coroners, or in the actions of the British state.

MH said...

Adam, you can reason that the law might not recognize Taliban fighters as combatants if you want (although I would question whether that is the case) but in the real world I am sure that our soldiers in Afghanistan will see them as that.

If there is such obvious dislocation between reality and our legal description of it, the fault must surely lie with the latter.

Adam Higgitt said...

"in the real world I am sure that our soldiers in Afghanistan will see them as [combatants]"

I'm sure you're right. However, the point under discussion was on what basis coroners in the UK pass verdicts of unlawful killing on British soldiers, while no such verdicts are passed on dead Talibs. I suggest this is why.

MH said...

I don't think that was the point under discussion, Adam. My point was that these verdicts are self-evidently ludicrous, irrespective of whether our coroners pass verdicts on the deaths of Taliban fighters.

Adam Higgitt said...

Actually, you introduced it as an example of a state applying double standards.

Since the anomaly you highlight appears to be rooted in international law rather than state action, it's probably not a good example.

Adam Higgitt said...

Sorry - allow me to rephrase that to sound less truculent: I thought you had introduced the point to support your argument about state double standards.

MH said...

The point I made was about the "two-faced self-righteousness" of these verdicts, Adam. You argued that this did not constitute double standards on the rather technical point (as I saw it) that, since UK coroners do not pass verdicts on dead Taliban fighters, we cannot know whether they would apply the same criteria or not.

My argument is that if the UK authorities did apply the same criteria, our soldiers or aircrew would face charges for the unlawful killing of Taliban fighters in the normal course of war. This, as I think even you might concede, is not what happens; and that demonstrates the UK's double standards.

I don't think UK can hide behind international law on this, for the verdicts UK coroners reach are not dictated by international law. In my opinion, the proper verdict for them to pass would be something like "killed in action". This would be quite sufficient to describe deaths of this sort (though any additional narrative or recommendation should not be precluded) and indeed this would be something that the family of that soldier could take pride in.

Adam Higgitt said...

Well, I suppose if the UK authorities held investigations into the deaths of Taliban fighters, and if they then passed a series of verdicts that were not equivalent to those passed about British soliders then, yes, the UK could be accused of double standards. But there are two fairly big "ifs" to be surmounted before you can get to anything like a demonstration of double standards.

And of course that would still ignore the context in which the coroners' investigations of British deaths is taking place. International law does not dictate the verdicts (I said in my opening contribution that narrative verdicts are possible) but it seems as if it does a) permit a coroner's inquiry b) preclude a verdict in which the death can be classified as some sott of "killed in action". Because the Taliban and others are not lawful combatants their actions cannot be classified as those of a formally recognised military.

MH said...

Adam, you still seem fixated on the same point I mentioned in the last comment, and it simply isn't relevant. If you want to go round in circles on that one, you'll have to do it on your own.

So let's jump to your point "b" and the sentence after. No verdict is precluded. The coroner is free to pass any verdict s/he likes rather than "pidgeonhole" it into one on a closed list of available forms. That is what a "narrative" verdict is. But using the excuse that the Taliban are in some way not "lawful combatants" is simply another manifestation of the two-faced self-righteousness I've been talking about.

Adam Higgitt said...

I'm having to restate the point it because you are either unwilling or unable to grasp that there cannot be double standards if there is no comparable second example of the application of the standard in question. All we have in this case is a single standard.

As for point b, I've acknowledged - twice - the latitude of the narrative verdict (in fact, I introduced it into the discussion). The point is that the status of the victim's assailants (i.e unlawful combatants) probably establishes the basis upon which the death may be investigated. If a UK citizen in another part of the world was killed by the means of use of deliberately placed explosives, and that individual’s killer was not sanctioned to take force in any way the coroner would most likely record a similar verdict. Deliberately instigated death at the hands of an unlawful combatant equals unlawful killing. The clue is in the title.


That’s it from me for this thread. I did wonder if at any point you would have the stature and commonsense to simply admit that you alighted on a poor example, and move on. You didn’t disappoint.


MH said...

Adam, several times in this discussion you've made statements that are ridiculous or wrong. I've pointed these out to you. Each time you go off at a different tangent, then at the end you go off in a huff.

For anybody who's been following this, or anyone who reads this in future, the point I was making is quite simple: that states often justify violence as a way of furthering their own political aims, but apply different standards to those who use violence against them.

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