Using petitions to gain public support for a government peace process

Elkarri, a peace group in the Basque country of Spain, organized a drive that encouraged citizens of all political persuasions to sign a petition, giving them a way to collectively and effectively pressure the Spanish and Basque governments to initiate a peace dialogue.

Since the 15th century the Basque country, on the border between France and Spain, has been disputed territory. The repressive policies of Francisco Franco, dictator of Spain from 1939-1975, aggravated the conflict and gave rise to Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA), the militant group now infamous for using terrorist tactics to fight for Basque autonomy. Currently, the vast majority of Basque people rejects the violence of ETA and is interested in working toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The Elkarri Social Movement for Dialogue and Agreement was formed in 1992 to work with both governments and citizens to further the peace process.

In Spain, the right to petition is guaranteed by Article 29 of the constitution, which states All Spaniards shall have the right to individual and collective petition, in writing, in the manner and subject to the consequences to be laid down by law.

Beginning in 2001, Elkarri held a massive signature drive in which they asked people to sign a document demanding the initiation of a dialogue of peace between all parties in the Basque region. Since its inception, Elkarri had been building a database of people who wanted to be involved with their activities, so in addition to collecting signatures at their events, they also contacted these people for their support. Elkarri also asked each person for a donation of about US$7 and to volunteer their time. To date 123,000 citizens have signed the petition, 10,000 people have become Elkarri volunteers, and over US$200,000 has been donated. In addition, representatives of all political parties, except the Partido Popular of Spain, have signed the document.

In addition to collecting signatures from within the Basque country, Elkarri networks with international human rights groups to gain their support. They send out a document similar to the peace petition and ask the organizations to sign it to give their support to the peace process. Signing the document does not indicate any commitment beyond symbolic support for the efforts towards peace and dialogue. Later, if the individuals or organizations that are part of the network wish to participate more actively they can contact Elkarri. This petition initiative gives strength to the peace process by associating it with well-respected international groups, and adds to the resources of Elkarri by giving them feedback and ideas from the various organizations.

Due to this campaign and other similar efforts, the Spanish Parliament has recently supported the possibility of developing peace talks in the Basque region. This procedure has been quite successful thus far, and will hopefully result in a successful peace process. Elkarri does offer several recommendations to other groups: firstly, it is important to have diverse ways that people can become involved in the process (from simply signing their name to actually becoming a member of Elkarri). According to the group, it is important to use clear and positive messages, to collaborate with other institutions, to develop complementary political and international initiatives, and to invest in a database (which holds the names of potential supporters).

For more information on this tactic, read our in-depth case study.

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

Elkarri's own recommendations are important to keep in mind when considering a petition-based tactic. Organizations should also have a clear understanding of the political situation and the likelihood of the government to respond favorably to such an initiative. In some more authoritarian states, the government may not be interested in listening to the demands of the citizens, and a list of petition signers or potential supporters could be dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands. However, in the right context a widely-signed petition can be a powerful political tool. Organizations might also consider enlisting the support of other NGOs, like Elkarri did. Giving other groups a chance to add their name to the petition without requiring them to become involved broadens an initiative's support base and may even lead to higher levels of involvement once the signatory groups realize the importance of the movement.