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Taking on the arms industry

Taking on the arms industry

This is the inside story of how ten women disarmed a warplane bound for genocide in East Timor and were acquitted.

Brought up in rural Suffolk, Andrea Needham got involved in creative non-violence while working at a homelessness shelter in the US. Back in London, she  protested against the 1991 Gulf War with Gulf War Resistors. In one action, she was bodily removed from Harrods book department after confronting US commander of coalition forces Norman Schwarzkopf, there to sign copies of his autobiography, with a banner saying “It doesn’t take a hero to kill Iraqi children”.

Even before this, she had been deeply concerned by the Indonesian invasion of East Timor and western collaboration in what Noam Chomsky called “one of the greatest bloodlettings in modern history.” Being Timorese at that time was sufficient cause for torture, rape and killing. The UN passed six resolutions calling on Indonesia to withdraw, but western powers worked behind the scenes to render them ineffective. In 1992 the British Government was negotiating to supply Indonesia with 24 Hawk aircraft.

Chris Cole, who later founded Drone Wars UK, had already taken part in direct action against arms dealer British Aerospace, breaking into their Stevenage factory and disarming military aircraft. Andrea too got involved in trespasses at the site and held summer peace camps near other facilities.

There is a noble history of disarming warheads encompassing the US, Europe and Australia. The disarming of the British Aerospace Hawk was the 56th such action, a concrete way to further peace and an opportunity to use the subsequent trial to challenge the morality of the arms dealers and the Government. It was also an action planned and executed entirely by women, some of whom had children, who knew that conviction would lead to a lengthy jail sentence. 

The action took ten months of planning, including several nocturnal observations of the site to ensure the right planes were in the right place. The night the women broke in to disable the plane, doing hundreds of thousands of pounds of damage, is described with great suspense - and humour too as they tried to explain by phone what they had done to a sleepy press association journalist.

The women were arrested and imprisoned for months before the trial - at which point all humour vanishes. The bleakness of Risley prison underlines the depth of commitment of these activists, as they faced monotony, petty rules and active persecution from the authorities.

The long days in prison were partially consumed by the mountain of work to prepare for the trial, especially with most of the women representing themselves without barristers. Their basic defence was the right in law to use reasonable force to prevent a crime - in this case, killing people. To sidestep this, the prosecution and British Aerospace claimed the plane was primarily intended for training purposes - but the detailed knowledge of the women helped challenge this.

After a legal tussle with the judge, the women were permitted to call expert witnesses on the situation in East Timor. Veteran journalist John Pilger testified on the massacres he had seen there and head of Bradford University Peace Studies department Paul Rogers gave evidence on the Hawk aircraft’s capability to drop cluster bombs.

As the author received supportive letters from East Timor and demonstrations grew outside the court, the trial reached its climax with the women’s powerful closing speeches. With a tough judge who was openly sceptical of their defence and a maximum possible sentence of ten years, the stakes were high. It’s hard to convey the narrative’s emotional tension when the jury announced “not guilty” verdicts.

The campaign against arms sales went on for several more years. Despite talk of an “ethical foreign policy”, Hawk sales to Indonesia actually increased under Blair’s government. Intensified violence by the Indonesian military against East Timor finally forced the US and EU to impose an arms embargo in 1999.

Nearly twenty years on, Andrea Needham has written a brilliant account of this brave action. It’s gripping and inspiring and should be read by every activist.

The Hammer Blow can be purchased for £10 (including p&p) from the Peace News website www.peacenews.info

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Scotland: No short cuts ahead. Just Real Labour Politics!

Scotland: No short cuts ahead. Just Real Labour Politics!