Father Martin Newell was once more in court last week facing the charge of criminal damage relating to paint that he and fellow peace campaigner Katrina Alton had put on a notice at an arms fair.
The arms fair, the Defence Services Export International (DSEI) in London’s Docklands, always draws in the merchants of death from across the world.
During Martin’s brief hearing at Stratford magistrates court in east London, he tried to make his case of lawful excuse in taking the actions he did. He likened painting over the notice to taking similar action if there were something advertising hand guns, child pornography or heroin. The action was preventing a crime so should not warrant prosecution. He also pressed a number of witnesses on the crimes that maybe committed in the arms fair itself.
Martin was particularly persistent when questioning the police officers who had been involved in his arrest and prosecution. Did they ever consider what might be going on inside the arms exhibition with its array of delegations coming in from human rights offending nations like Colombia and China?
The point had particular pertinence, as 11 years ago I had been involved in exposing a crime that had gone on at the arms exhibition. On that occasion the DSEI was being held at Chertsey in Surrey. A tip off indicated that a Romanian company was selling banned anti-personnel landmines. I went to the exhibition spoke to the salesman on the stand who indeed confirmed that the illegal weapons were for sale.
The story made headlines leading on Channel 4 news and the papers the next day. A government inquiry was announced. A few months later, a couple of Ministry of Defence police officers turned up at my house to take a statement. This was duly completed but that was the last I heard of the affair. No prosecution was pursued.
There have been other cases of illegal sales of weapons at the arms fairs but still they continue to take place on British soil in all of our names.
The fairs themselves are bizarre occasions with salesmen talking feverishly in a totally sanitised way about what this or that weapon can do. No mention of the damage done by the weapons being sold, just how effective they are at doing the killing.
At that time of my story the link was clear between what was happening in the arms fair and a young girl of 13 who I had seen a few years earlier in Cambodia supporting herself as she progressed slowly along a frame, both legs having been blown off by anti-personnel landmines.
Martin and Katrina’s protest brought home to at least those outside the exhibition what really was going on inside. One bystander congratulated them on their principled stance. The court process was a continuation of this process of exposure to the wider world, linking arms sales to the process of killing people.
Dehumanisation seems to be a vital pre-requisite of the arms business and war generally. It is depressing to see how life in the form of international conflict becomes so debased and devalued. The hierarchy of importance attached to different lives is an important part of this process and nowhere is it clearer than in the Afghanistan war.
While every soldier who dies is named and honoured on returning to this country. They are all it seems fine individuals, never anything less than paragons of virtue.
Compare this to Afghani lives. Few people are ever named, restricted instead to being described in purely numeric terms. So when the recent big military operation began recently in Afghanistan and 30 civilians were killed, none were named. It was just described as unfortunate in terms of the military operation. No mention of the death of some mother’s son or a young child’s grandparent.
The actions of Martin Newell, Katrina Alton, Pax Christi’s Pat Gaffney of Pax Christi and many others in taking such direct actions for life are vital acts of witness. They offer a wake up call to those who seek the whole time to cheapen and devalue life, if only to ensure that it is that much easier to take it. Whether it be by sending troops into other people’s countries or selling arms to human rights offending regimes, the result is the same wasted lives and terrible deaths. Anything that can be done to break down the sanitisation process that operates in our society to somehow make it acceptable to take life must be applauded and supported.