12 February 2005

Supporting the people of Aceh

By Jacqui McCarney

We are awash with table top sales, fund raising lunches and coffee mornings for tsunami victims. The bucket is out in pubs, churches, community centers and local shops. This pattern of generosity is repeated throughout the country with businesses and celebrities becoming involved.

The shocking events of Boxing Day tsunami, which killed and made so many people homeless, touched our hearts and moved us to act to ensure these people had a future. We are now familiar with the names of remote areas like Aceh. This hardest hit area was levelled, with the disappearance of vast areas of coastline and whole communities wiped out. The Indonesian people have suffered unimaginable losses.

Our connection with these people is now one of deep sympathy and support. However, there is a connection forged between the people of Norfolk and the people of Indonesia long before the tsunami. A connection less advertised, more shameful and sadly more sinister.

As well as giving these people money to build new lives we are also, rather illogically, helping to destroy their lives. Currently Norfolk County, through its Pension Fund, has 663,215 shares in the arms company GKN, which has total military sales of $2.1 billion and sells arms to Indonesia. Our City council is involved too, as a participating employer in the County Council pension scheme

The Indonesian government is engaged in a 'dirty war', against the people of Aceh and West Papua who it has colonized and subjugated. In its 2002 report, Amnesty International says the action of the Indonesian Government has led to "hundreds of cases of extrajudicial execution, disappearances, torture and unlawful arrests". Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Asian Division notes, "in case after case, soldiers have gone into Acehnese village and publicly executed or beat people seemingly at random". Tragically, these attacks on the people of Aceh - as they struggle not just for their freedom but for bare life itself - resumed within a week of the devasting Boxing Day tsunami.

Alison King, the Leader of Norfolk County Council and the chairperson of the investment Committee, deciding on investment policy, defends the Council's investment in the arms trade "in order to keep down the costs to the council taxpayers".

However, ethical investment does not necessarily cost a penny more; and some local authorities, such as Nottinghamshire County Council, have made a positive first step of investing a percentage of their Pension Fund in portfolios which exclude arms companies. Such ethical restrictions then could be introduced here in Norfolk, too. I do not think Norfolk County Council, whose role is to look after people in this county, should invest in companies that cause misery to other people around the world.

Britain is a major global player in the arms industry. It is the second largest arms exporter (after the United States), with a quarter of global trade. The majority of people killed in wars are the victims of small arms, and Britain has granted 1,500 small arms export licenses under the Labour Government to dozens of countries. Since 1997 weapons have been sold to Algeria, Columbia, Israel, Nepal, the Philippines and Russia. All of these countries have terrible human rights records and are currently involved in conflicts. We are therefore, complicit in massive human rights abuses in several countries, exacerbating regional tensions in areas of conflict and violating our own and EU's guidelines on arms export.

In 1997 East Timor's Bishop Belo implored the British Government, "my people have suffered terribly from the effects of armaments made in countries far from our shore… appeal to the government of the United Kingdom…. Do not sustain any longer a conflict which without these sales could never have been pursued in the first place, nor for so very long."

It is clear that the people of Norfolk wish to express good will and generosity to all those who suffered in the tsunami. In a democracy, these sentiments should be fully represented by our local and national Government. The Campaign against the Arms Trade, recommends you write to the councils, and to your City and County Councillors. As council tax-payers, the people of Norfolk, have the status of beneficiaries, and therefore the right to comment on Norfolk County's Pension Fund. It is time to end the hypocrisy, if we truly want to help the victims of the tsunami, we the citizens of Norfolk must stop investing in the very arms that are used so cruelly against them.