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Decommissioning the arms trade
February 23, 2009
By Andrew Beckett (The Guardian)
When government agencies cloak arms exports to Israel in secrecy, we have a moral and legal right to prevent their damage
During the night of January 17 2009, the last day of the Israeli attack on Gaza, six peace activists climbed the fence of a Brighton arms factory EDO MBM. Entering through broken windows and wielding hammers, they systematically smashed computers and machinery, and destroyed records. Hundreds of thousands of pounds' worth of damage was caused. They then lay down on the floor and waited to be arrested. Prior to the action, the six recorded their motivation in a video briefing. In the words of one protester, Elijah Smith:
"I don't feel I'm going to do anything illegal tonight, but I'm going to go into an arms factory and smash it up to the best of my ability so that it cannot actually work or produce munitions ... [which] have been provided to the Israeli army."
Four of the six are now out on strict bail conditions, while two, including Elijah Smith, are on remand in Lewes prison. While property was damaged, their actions involved no violence to persons.
What would make someone smash up a factory on an industrial estate and then wait calmly to be taken into custody? Perhaps a belief that the only way to prevent atrocity is not to politely petition the arms traders but to actively disarm them. And perhaps a knowledge that while our government may indulge in public handwringing over civilian casualties, it veils in secrecy a highly profitable arms supply industry to Israel.
Frustration with the mainstream anti-war movement (headed, as it is, by a Trotskyist clique interested in little more than political careers, polite marches and the selling of newspapers) has led to the growth of a new anti-militarist movement based on direct action against the war machine. Around the UK, arms manufacturers have faced relentless protest campaigns outside their gates and sometimes on their rooftops. In Nottingham, the Heckler & Koch arms warehouse has been subjected to a regular picket; in Northern Ireland, Raytheon faced a "people's decommissioning" in 2006, which led to the acquittals, by a Belfast jury in June 2008, of nine people who had after they destroyed computers in protest at Israeli attacks on Lebanon; in Newcastle, protesters have blockaded a BAE Systems factory; in Bristol, Raytheon's office saw a rooftop occupation by a peace camp that lasted several weeks.
One of the mainstays of this new movement is Smash EDO, a Brighton-based campaign against local arms manufacturers. We campaign under the slogan "Every bomb that is dropped, every bullet that is fired in the name of this war of terror has to be made somewhere, and wherever it is, it can be resisted." We aim to shut EDO MBM's factory down or see it converted to civilian production. We are determined to be there until they're not.
In Brighton, rallies against the outbreak of the Iraq war saw thousands on the streets, expressing anger, even against the New Labour-led council. Ironically, the day before the EDO MBM factory was broken into, Brighton council censored a motion of condemnation (jpg) against EDO MBM's supplies of components to Israel tabled by the Green party.
Meanwhile, on an anonymous-looking industrial estate a mile and a half north of the town, EDO MBM Technology Ltd was quietly manufacturing weapons for Bush and Blair's "shock and awe" strategy. The same company – now owned by the US corporation ITT (which had a share in a manufacturer of bomber aircraft for Nazi Germany, and later, supporters of Pinochet's 1973 military coup against the Allende government in Chile) is now manufacturing vital equipment for Israel's airforce.
Faced with documents that directly advertise the firm's supply of arming units (pdf) and bomb release units used by Israeli F-16 bomb racks and ejector release units (pdf), and Raytheon Paveway III and IV guided bomb parts, the police and prosecuting authorities have shut their eyes and pretended nothing is there. In fact, they've claimed there is "not a scintilla of evidence" that the company make any parts for the F-16. In just the same way, the UK government ignores the apparent supply of engines for the unmanned Israeli drones used in illegal targeted assassinations.
The truth, we submit, is that the UK government is hiding the corporate sources of its multimillion-pound supply of components to the Israeli armed forces, and now we believe that the information commissioner has endorsed this secrecy. On December 18 2008, an FOI complaint against the Department of Business concerning a request for details (or, at least, a bare confirmation or denial) of the existence of ITT-EDO MBM export licences for Israel was not upheld by the commissioner (pdf), because he decided to give more weight to government arguments that the public interest in business confidentiality was greater than that of the public interest in transparency and accountability of the UK arms trade. The government line (supported by the information commissioner) is that the revelation of where arms companies send their components is information that might provoke "pressure groups" to engage in direct action, and the arms maker's business and end user's military capacity could be adversely affected. Business interest trumps democratic process every time.
Whatever the government says or does, we will continue to take action against this factory. Since the campaign began in 2004, protesters have shrugged off an attempt to restrict their rights with an injunction and faced down numerous attempts by Sussex police to stifle protests. To date, there have been over 80 arrests, yet only a handful of convictions. Numerous court cases have collapsed as the Crown Prosecution Service has decided "sensitive" information about the relationship between the police and the firm should not be made public. A deputy district judge had ruled that the information did not deserve public interest immunity and, from that point on, the cases began dropping in their dozens to keep this information secret.
The campaign has gathered pace and gained national coverage, thanks in part to Sussex police's attempt to block screenings of the film "On the Verge", made by radical media collective SchNews, about the anti-EDO campaign.
Even without reference to the civilian casualties and widespread destruction caused by Israel's recent assault on Gaza, which may be investigated as a war crime, those six people who decided on January 17 2009 to "decommission" the factory in Brighton had, and others will continue to have, a statutory "lawful excuse" defence for such action under Section 5 of the Criminal Damage Act 1971. Damage to property is lawful if carried out in an honest belief that it is preventing greater damage; this defence has been accepted by a jury in Belfast in the case of the "Raytheon nine", and more recently by a jury in Maidstone in the prosecution of climate change protesters at Kingsnorth power station.
As the EDO decommissioners will argue in court, when elected representatives, governments and international law fail to act in the wider public interest of international security and justice, it is up to individuals to take a direct role in preventing the death and destruction. The lives, security and property of those who are struck down by armaments made in the UK are worth no less than our lives, security or property.
Thanks to Andrew Beckett and The Guardian for covering this document. Reprint rights remain with the aforementioned.