Batasuna ban


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Demonstrations and violence in Spain - the Batasuna ban

This week saw the violent break up of a demonstration in the Basque city of Bilbao by Spanish riot police using tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon. This led to rioting, with demonstrators hurling objects at the police, with at least seven people injured and a number of arrests.

These violent scenes follow the banning of the Basque political party Batasuna by the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, and the near unanimous support for this ban by the Spanish parliament. Both mainstream political parties, the people's party and the socialist party voted for the ban, while the moderate Basque nationalist party voted against, and the united left and Catalan nationalists abstained.

The banning of a political party in Europe is not unprecedented, but the reasons and motives behind this ban are not only questionable but also anti-democratic. The German constitution bans parties that have been proven to be anti-democratic, and to date this has been used to ban two parties since the end of the second world war in Western Germany; a communist party, and the successor to Hitler's National Socialist party. Germany is in the process of trying to ban the far-right National Democratic Party. France has also banned the neo-fascist New Order party and the left wing Action Directe, and banned the small far-right group linked to the man who allegedly tried to assassinate president Jacques Chirac last month. A number of parties were banned in Portugal, Spain and Greece under their respective military dictatorships, particularly Communist and Socialist parties but these bans have been reversed with the restoration of parliamentary democracy. The United Kingdom never outlawed Sinn Fein, even at the height of IRA violence.

Spain's decision to ban Batasuna has largely been riding on the back of popular sentiment and antipathy of ETA both in Spain and in sections of the Basque country. These sentiments have been reinforced by Batasuna's refusal to denounce ETA violence. Judge Baltasar Garzon said that Batasuna was part of ETA which was "guilty of crimes against humanity". This ban has been widely praised in Spain's press and will undoubtedly further boost the popularity of the Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, who is claiming to be doing his part in the war on terror.

Popular as this ban has been is Spain, it is plainly and undeniably wrong, whether one chooses to examine it from a moral, legalistic or simply practical perspective. Morally the issue should not even be open to debate; it should be self-evident. In a democracy, coupled with the right to free speech is the freedom of like minded individuals to organise themselves into political structures and to present their opinions to the public and the political stage. This principle is fundamental to the functioning of democracy, and has been recognised as such for a long time. It has been summarised by John Stuart Mill: "If mankind minus one were of one opinion, then mankind is no more justified in silencing the one than the one - if he had the power - would be justified in silencing mankind". In the context of representative democracy, this principle must be extended to political parties. And it is a principle that is independent of the ideas being expounded, however deplorable one may find them.

Legalistically, the Spanish authorities have argued that a number of Batasuna members are also members of ETA, and that therefore both organisations must be banned as they are inseperable. This is not unlike suggesting that a number of supporters of Aznar's popular party are murderers, therefore murderers and Aznar's party are inseperable and should both be punished. It smacks of poorly thought out inductive reasoning at best and of malicious and vindictive collective punishment at worst. Because, even if a number of Batasuna supporters are morally supportive or at least tolerant to ETA's murderous activities, this is not and could not possibly be a crime in a democratic society. This is not to say that any members of Batasuna that are proven to have actively supported ETA should not be punished in accordance with the level of the crime they have committed. But to ban the whole party on the basis of the criminal complicity of some of its members is legally indefensible and must be struck down in court. If the Spanish courts will not do this then the case must be taken to the European Court of Human Rights.

As for the practical issues involved in the ban on the Batasuna party, the sheer folly of this ban could not be more resonant than in the context of the war on terrorism that Aznar has framed it. It is plainly obvious that by banning the democratic expression of a significant proportion of the Basque population (Batasuna's support is thought to be around 10% in the Basque country), the feeling of resentment will grow. This resentment will find undemocratic conduits of expression when starved of a democratic outlet. ETA's bloody campaign of violence will undoubtedly intensify following this decision, and the Spanish government is at serious risk of this resentment spreading to sections of the Basque population that oppose violence but also feel victimised by being deprived of political choice.

There had been hope that this conflict would be resolved along the lines of the Irish peace process, involving Sinn Fein and the IRA. This peace process has resulted in increased democracy for all the peoples of Northern Ireland, has led to a dramatic decrease in killings in Northern Ireland itself and a complete lack of terrorist activity in the rest of the UK. That this model of conflict resolution is not been followed the world over is simply illogical (including conflict resolution involving the UK itself and other parts of the world), and flies in the face of the simplest truism of conflict resolution. For a conflict to be resolved, there has to be someone on the other side to talk to, unless Aznar believes that he can catch every single ETA terrorist in Spain.

The Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon and the government of Jose Maria Aznar have largely driven the ban on Batasuna. In the face of the illogical and illegal nature of this ban it becomes necessary to examine the motives of the people behind it. Baltasar Garzon has become a player on the international political stage for a number of high-profile cases that he has been involved in, notably his action taken against the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. During this campaign he led the campaign to extradite Pinochet from London to Spain to face charges of human rights abuses. Eventually Pinochet returned to Spain, but Garzon did succeed in getting the British authorities to arrest him in the first place. Garzon is known to harbour political ambitions, and has spent several months as a junior minister in a previous socialist government. He walked out of this post saying that he was not being given the tools to do the job. Party sources said that he was upset about being passed over for higher posts. It seems likely that Garzon is aiming for higher things, on the national or possibly even European or other international stage.

As for Aznar, a number of journalists have suggested that he is driven by revenge for ETA's attempt on his life in 1995. While this is possible, the popularity of the ban within Spain and the assurance of support for his person and government, coupled with the international clout that being seen to be a leading member of the war on terror confers these days seem to be sufficient to explain his position. But he, and all other people of Spain must be wary, because when democracy is weakened by the removal of democratic rights, the democratic deficit created where these rights once stood is not replaced by a vacuum but by a lack of democracy. And a lack of democracy is fertile breeding ground for terrorism and violence.

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