Originally written in November 2019
Beating drums, children with sparklers, and choruses of song ring out on Home Farm Road in Brighton, on a cold November evening, directly outside the factory of arms manufacturer EDO MBM. Scenes of spirited community cohesion stand in stark contrast to the images of black clad masked protesters, that have become synonymous with the public’s imagination of activism around the UK arms trade.
The renewed protests and scrutiny of EDO’s presence in Brighton are the result of recently uncovered evidence that missile guidance components for Paveway IV missiles that are manufactured at the plant in Moulsecoomb, were used in Saudi led air strikes on civilian targets in Yemen in 2016, constituting a violation of international law under United Nations conventions.
Yemen is currently suffering a humanitarian catastrophe after 4 years of violent conflict between Saudi and Yemeni forces loyal to President Ab-drabbuh Mansur Hadi, and an anti-government Houthi insurgency. With 100,000 dead as a result of the conflict and 13 million Yemeni citizens facing starvation, many critics argue that the conflict could not be sustained without British logistical and intelligence support for the Saudi led coalition.
Present at the demonstration that evening was Jacob Berkson, who works within activist groups ‘Brighton Against the Arms Trade’ (BAAT) and ‘Brighton Migrant Solidarity’. “These weapons they’re making there are being used to kill the people and displace people that have become my friends”Jacob tells me. “So for me I was like, well I’ve got to do something about this place on my doorstep”.
The Impacts of the conflict in Yemen have touched home on a personal note for many local activists working to support those claiming asylum in the UK, as Jacob explains: “The very same people I’m working with are very often the people that, not only do they experience the bombs as victims but they are actively fighting against the whole global system.”
Asylum claims to the UK since 2017 have risen from 26000 to 36000 but just 257 asylum claim were received from Yemen last year, with an acceptance rate of 71.9% for new claims. In 2016 a Home Office report declared the level of violence perpetrated against civilians from both sides off the conflict to be so great, that returning refugees to the war torn nation would constitute a breach of the European convention on human rights.
On the same day of the reports publishing, however, a Foreign Office memorandum was released to the select committee on arms exports licences, declaring the military campaign of the Saudi led coalition to be operating within the remit of international humanitarian law, and deeming the suspension of export licences to Saudi Arabia as unnecessary.
As the violence wages on in Yemen the complicity of UK firms such as EDO MBM in fueling the humanitarian catastrophe is becoming increasingly apparent, though this is by far the first chapter in EDO’s history of profiteering from destruction and human misery.
EDO What’s the Story
The latest wave of protest against EDO MBM’s presence in Brighton are only the most recent episode in what has been a long running and vibrant campaign against the organisation’s activities. Since 2004 the campaign ‘Smash EDO’ has aimed to draw attention to EDO’s involvement in supplying weapons parts that have allegedly been used against civilian targets in Palestine and Iraq.
Throughout the long campaign activists have implemented a wide array of direct-action tactics in an attempt to disrupt the companies supply chain.During the 15 year campaign, these have included blockades, roof occupations, lock-ons and most notably the sabotaging of over £200,000 worth of manufacturing equipment, after 5 smash EDO activists forced entry to EDO MBM’s factory on 17th January 2009.
The ensuing trial resulted with all seven of the accused being acquitted on the grounds that they acted with ‘lawful excuse’, i.e. they acted for a greater good in preventing further alleged war crimes being committed. This precedent had arguably been set in May 2007 following the acquittal of two protesters Toby Olditch and Philip Pritchard on identical grounds, after they forced entry and sabotaged RAF Jets in Gloucestershire on the eve of the Iraq war, undeniably sending a powerful message to protesters who may be have been mulling over their methods. In the trial’s aftermath, the defendant’s solicitor Lydia Dagostino highlighted that the verdict provided “a clear indication that sometimes direct action is the only option when all other avenues have failed.”
The successes of direct action in the Smash EDO campaign have not only hindered EDO’s manufacturing capabilities, but as Jacob points out EDO now occupy a place in the community’s consciousness “because people like me go and stand outside the factory, and if they hadn’t done all the direct action no one would have known the factory existed” he proclaims.
However, in light of these successes, Jacob feels there is currently a shift in the dynamic and methods being employed in arms activist groups now: “I think there’s a bit less militancy at the moment a bit less direct action” He explains. “It has to be a popular movement, and that means you have to make space in the movement for people that are not in a position to get themselves arrested”.
A Diversity of Tactics
The expanding appeal of the campaign against EDO was evident in its attendees on Tuesday evening, with organisations as diverse as the Labour Party and Quakers for Peace being present as vocal participants. And as the appeal of the campaign diversifies so too it would seem do its tactics.
Speaking to the crowds outside EDO on Tuesday evening, Anna Stavrianakis, a professor of International Relations at Sussex University who specialises in the arms trade, hailed a “diversity of tactics” as pivotal in the campaign to expose EDO’s activities. “I think they [the activists] had been thinking about their strategy, so there was this kind of desire to move away some of the very direct-action tactics that had been used before.” Anna Explains. “Then what happened over the summer, was that one of the local activists found buried on page 200 and something of this UN report, a photo of a fragment with the EDO MBM name on it, that had been found at the site of an airstrike in Yemen, an airstrike that the UN panel of experts concluded was a violation of international law”
The discovery comes as a result of painstaking research from BAAT activists,and stands as a testament to the diversifying skill sets now necessary in activist campaigns. The evidence uncovered in the UN Security Council Report published in January 2019, has led to a spiked increase in political support for the campaign to halt EDO’s exports. In October this year 33 Brighton and Hove City Councillors from the Labour, Conservative and Green Parties, penned a letter to Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, expressing concern over the discovery and EDO’s ongoing activities. In the address they state:
“As you will know, the targeting of civilian infrastructure that has no dual use for military purpose is a war crime.”
“We therefore call on you to suspend all extant licences (OIELs) which EDO MBM and other companies used in this case and fully investigate this matter.”
Whilst generating national media attention and cross-party political support for the campaign might appear as the crowning victory for BAAT, their successful efforts may spell victory for the activists on a more personal level. As Anna explains: “One of the things that has been a real feature of the contestation with EDO is that there was this cat and mouse game, that each time that the protesters, the activist researchers, would find evidence that
they thought made their case, the company would change its website and they would take these things down. So, the activists were always trying to play catch up to actually be able to nail down and have evidence and have proof of what the company were doing.”
EDO’s approach of secrecy and reticence appears not be shared by the government that grant them their export licences. In spite of the ongoing death and destruction, former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt wrote in an article for Politico, that to halt the supply of arms to Saudi Arabia would be “morally bankrupt and the people of Yemen would be the biggest losers”.
In June of this year national grouping Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), won a record victory in the court of appeal, when judges ruled that key ministers had failed to consider the risk to civilian life in granting export licences, and called to halt future weapons exports to Saudi Arabia. How-ever, in September, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss, confessed to the Commons that three further export licences had been granted in violation of the court order, and blamed poor communication between government departments as the cause.
Disregard for the laws and conventions on international arms trading, of-ten comes dressed as complacency, and has an enduring tradition in British politics. In 1992 the Scott Inquiry was launched after British Aerospace company Matrix Churchill, was discovered by HM customs to have been exporting weapons manufacturing machinery to Iraq, having been granted the necessary licences from the government.
Having violated the Commons’ agreement to abide by the 1985 arms embargo on Iraq, the government’s defence of denial and aversion at-tempted to use ‘public interest immunity certificates’ in court to suppress the use of critical documents as evidence. The cited threats to national security were quickly dismissed by the trial judge, and in court Minister Alan Clark was cornered into confessing he had been “economical with the actualité” about what he really knew about export licences to Iraq.
Following the creation of freedom of information laws off the back of the Scott Report, the government has undoubtedly been forced to change tact in how it pursues its previously clandestine foreign policy aims. Anna ex-plains that as support for the Saudi Coalition is explicit, “arms exports are much more pro-actively justified as something good, rather than some-thing that needs to be kept secret.” Justifications of maintaining healthy trade relations and regional counter terrorism measures, Anna feels are little more than “Tropes. They’re shorthand’s designed to shortcut any actual discussion”.
Arms funneled by the Saudi government have also found their way into the hands of jihadi groups operating in Syria. These revelations highlight the breath-taking double standards inherent in the arms export policies employed by the British Government, who on one hand have fought to combat ISIS and jihadi groups in Syria with the use of airstrikes, whilst simultaneously providing armaments to a regime that has proven to be a major bank roller and weapons supplier to the very same groups.
BAAT have long fought to force government accountability for the crimes committed through UK arms export policy. Anna, however, points out that a complex bureaucratic system is creating a stranglehold on this process: “What the government does is basically it engages in tautology. The government says that we don’t license weapons where there’s a clear risk they might be misused, ergo there’s no clear risk that that weapon was going to be misused. What they never do is admit a mistake or admit the policy is wrong, or even concede that weapon was used in a likely violation”. She also adds: “It’s not just maneuvering, it’s maneuvering for the purpose of facilitating supply which is the irony of a policy that is supposed to be preventative”
Political maneuvering and writhing over arms exports is likely to continue as the government prepares its appeal to the Supreme Court, in an attempt to overturn the previous ruling. Meanwhile the local and national campaigns of BAAT and CAAT respectively, have marked an evolution in the methods used to expose the activities of shadowy arms firms, and kick-started a new wave of public and political support for their cause. Moreover, these events also stand as a testament and salutation to the nature, persistence and ingenuity of those to refuse to deny their social conscience, and act in defiance in whatever ways they can. As Jacob puts it: “I think I carry on be-cause I have a really deep faith in our ability as humans to share a world and to work together, you know mutual aid and solidarity.” He further states: “There is a popular movement against the arms trade and for me, that’s building the street is building communities, that is the way you affect political change”.