Hawks and Doves

Four remarkable women are challenging the most powerful forces in the land

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 30th July 1996.

This afternoon, four remarkable women will discover how British justice understands the concept of duty. Depending on the court’s interpretation, they will either walk free or start sentences of anything up to ten years.

On January 29, Andrea Needham, Joanna Wilson and Lotte Kronlid walked into a hangar at British Aerospace’s weapons factory at Warton in Lancashire. With household hammers they disabled a Hawk jet due to be delivered to Indonesia. When they had finished, they used the telephone inside the hangar to alert security. They were charged with conspiracy and criminal damage. Soon afterwards, Angie Zelter announced that she was intending to do the same and was arrested for conspiring with the others.

The women argue that their action was not a crime but a duty. British Aerospace Hawks, they say, have been used by the Indonesian army in the illegally-occupied land of East Timor to murder civilians. Disabling the jet, they claim, was the use of reasonable force to prevent crimes committed under the Genocide Act.

For the last two months, thousands of people in Lancashire and Merseyside have been mobilizing in their support, drawing up petitions, marching and holding vigils. Anglican, Catholic and Free Church leaders have denounced the sales to Indonesia, and held services of remembrance for the East Timorese dead. Even the police at the demonstrations admit to being deeply moved. Yet anyone living outside the north-west of England could be forgiven for confessing ignorance. The quiet revolution taking place in Merseyside, not to mention the actions of the four women have – with a few honourable exceptions – gone unmentioned in the national press.

Journalists have told the campaigners that they can say nothing until the trial has ended – the matter is subjudice, and therefore cannot be reported. Somehow such delicate scruples seem inapplicable to the reporting of gruesome rapes or murders, whose circumstances are divulged in meticulous detail long before the jury reaches its verdict. When ordinary people have taken the law into their own hands to disable not machines but other people – burglars or intruders – the papers have bellyached so loudly in their defence that the Home Secretary was persuaded to review the law.

Whatever the outcome of the trial, there can be little doubt that the events in East Timor do amount to genocide. Since 1975, 200,000 people – or one third of the island’s population – have been killed by Indonesian troops or in deliberately engineered famines. Similarly, there is compelling evidence that Hawk aircraft British Aerospace has sold to Indonesia are being deployed there.

Both BAe and the British government insist that the Indonesians have been using the Hawks only for training. It is hard to see how they formed this impression. In 1991, B.J.Habibie, the Indonesian minister responsible for equipping the armed forces, announced that the Hawks “will be used not only to train pilots but for ground attack.” Ground attack is exactly what witnesses from East Timor say the jets have been doing – dropping shrapnel bombs on communities resisting the island’s occupation.

So why has the government been promoting the deal? Why has the press been so reluctant to cover such a compelling story? The sale of Hawks to Indonesia, we are told, is in the national interest – it generates employment. British Aerospace is an important employer – if it relocated because of bad publicity, tens of thousands of people would lose their jobs. This is the rationale not only for selling BAe Hawks to Indonesia and British weapons of all descriptions to Nigeria, but also for the MoD’s new £4 billion spending package – £2.8 billion of which goes to British Aerospace.

Yet investment in the arms industry is a peculiarly ineffective means of generating employment. It is capital intensive – you must spend a lot of money to make one job. The billions poured into BAe by taxpayers and through government-brokered deals over the past few years have had little impact; its workforce declined by 60 per cent between 1991 and 1994.

The argument about employment is disingenuous. What we are seeing, more ominously than in any other sector of British life, are the responses to raw, unmediated power. This is the power of which President Eisenhower warned us in his valedictory address. This is the power which nearly succeeded in overturning our asylum laws by expelling a Saudi dissident. The instinct of anybody – whether government, press or ordinary citizens – confronting such might is to appease it. The result of appeasement, as anyone can see, is to make the powerful more powerful still.

But no industry, however monstrous, is invincible. Thousands of people in the north-west of England, knowing that it is their own communities which risk losing work, have now refused to be complicit in this propitiation. If they can do it, so can we all.