Who would have thought I had so much in common with Liz Truss? It turns out that we are both facing questions about the law in relation to our actions concerning the arms trade.
Today, Liz Truss, the International Trade Secretary, admitted that her department had committed even more breaches of a court ruling against arms exports to Saudi Arabia. I say “even more” because she had already admitted to breaches a couple of weeks ago.
My own situation is a bit different. I will be in court on 7th October charged with “willful obstruction of the highway”. I was one of hundreds of people who took nonviolent direct action earlier this month to resist the London arms fair, known euphemistically as Defence Systems & Equipment International, or DSEI. Other peaceful campaigners are due in court on the same day.
Breaking the Highways Act is a relatively minor offence. If convicted, I face a maximum penalty of a fine. Even this, however, is more punishment than Liz Truss can expect. She will not have to face a court in person. She has merely written an apologetic letter to the court. She is unlikely even to lose her ministerial job.
Truss apologised to MPs for “inadvertent breaches of the undertaking given to the Court”. She “apologised to the Court unreservedly”.
How do you inadvertently sell weapons? Has loyalty to the arms industry become so central to the government’s way of working that it trumps not only the most basic principles of humanity and compassion but also the rulings of British courts? I am reminded of the former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook’s comment that the chairman of BAE Systems had “the key to the garden door at Number Ten”.
This is not simply an issue about legal technicalities. It is about the double standards that allow the rich and powerful to engage in violence.
The revelation about the “inadvertent” arms sales to Saudi Arabia came the day after Boris Johnson called for tougher sentences for people who kill children. According to the United Nations and Amnesty International, Saudi-led forces are responsible for the majority of civilian deaths in Yemen, including thousands of children. But while Johnson wants to lock up British child-killers, he will happily supply weapons to Saudi child-killers. While the Saudi air force bombs civilians in Yemen, Saudi pilots are trained by the UK’s Royal Air Force in North Wales.
This hypocrisy was on display in the roads leading to the DSEI arms fair at the Excel Centre. At one point, police trying to remove peaceful protesters from the road said that they feared there might be “unlawful violence”. The only violence was in the setting up of an arms fair. The protesters had been entirely nonviolent all week, as the police surely knew.
When police accused us of threatening a “breach of the peace”, the word “peace” seemed to lose all meaning. It is the arms dealers and their customers who threaten peace. We were trying to contribute to peace by stopping the arms fair.
Standing in the road outside the Excel Centre as the police said this, I found my head spinning with the unreality of it all. Violence is “peace” when it is sanctioned by powerful people. Working for peace constitutes “violence” if it is done by people who resist the powerful.
Peace is confused with order and morality with conformity. As Martin Luther King said, those who criticise nonviolent direct action seem to prefer “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice”.
There will be little justice or peace in evidence as Liz Truss continues her work promoting arms exports. She has apologised to the court and to the House of Commons. The people of Yemen, however, facing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, have received no apology from the UK government. Perhaps Liz Truss inadvertently forgot to send it.