20 December 2008

Why bombs protesters felt compelled to act

By Liam Carroll

At the crack of dawn in October 2006, eight intrepid peace activists snipped their way through the fence at RAF Lakenheath, the Suffolk home to the United States Air Force 48th Fighter Wing, and made their way to an area where they believed they had seen stacks of cluster bombs. They chained themselves to the surrounding gate and then called the Ministry of Defence police to alert them to the presence of the bombs that the world has only recently clarified as illegal weapons of war.

More than two years later, seven members of the group appeared at Ipswich Crown Court charged with criminal damage and a breach of the serious organised crime and police act. The four-day trial, which was complicated and unprecedented according to the prosecution, led the judge to conclude that the group had correctly identified the presence of cluster munitions and had attempted sincerely to disrupt the deployment of the weapons.

The defendants were, none-the-less, found guilty of breaching the designated area and damaging the fence on the grounds that their action could not have prevented the continued operations of the military base. The defendants' case, therefore, that they were preventing war crimes was not dismissed on the grounds that war crimes were not committed but on the grounds that their action was insufficient to the task that they had set themselves.

The reason that only seven members of the group appeared in court is because Margaret Moss, who undertook the action in a neck brace and in considerable discomfort, had since died from cancer. Although Margaret was a tireless worker on behalf of the unions and was a founder-member of Norwich Campaign Against The Arms Trade, in this case she had decided to act more directly to try to save people's lives, knowing that her remaining time on this Earth was short.

At the same time as the trial, the heads of state from more than 100 countries, including the UK, gathered in Oslo to sign a worldwide ban on the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster bombs. Campaigners have long maintained that the weapons breach the Geneva conventions because, as the Oslo treaty states:

    "Cluster munition remnants kill or maim civilians, including women and children, obstruct economic and social development, including through the loss of livelihood, impede post-conflict rehabilitation and reconstruction and have other severe consequences that can persist for many years after use."

The brave band of activists, who undertook the action at some considerable risk to themselves, had originally been alerted to the possible presence of the bombs during the dramatic events of the summer of 2006. This was at the time of a near transatlantic crisis over the shipping of weapons and "hazardous material" to Israel during that country's attempts to defeat the Lebanese militia known as Hezbollah and retrieve captive Israeli soldiers.

The strong support given to Israel by the US and its determination to speed up the transfer of weapons to their ally caused considerable consternation in this country when UK airfields were used as a transit and refuelling stop for the weapons shipments. At the time, Britain's foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, criticised the US for ignoring procedure, but further splits were revealed when the weapons shipments were allegedly diverted to RAF Mildenhall, in Suffolk, a base leased to the US.

Marguerite Finn and Peter Lanyon had been the first local activists to react to the news and were soon at the gate of RAF Mildenhall with their banners, and answering questions from the press. Mell Harrison, local co-ordinator for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, soon sprung into action also and quickly set up a peace camp right by the airfield to monitor the kinds of planes coming into the base. The EDP also ran a story on its front page in which Nick Heath reported that the Foreign Office believed it should have been notified about any transfer of weapons, whilst US officials declared that they were "not bound" to inform UK authorities about weapons landing in Britain.

As the peace camp drew local interest and many visitors dropped by, it transpired that cargo planes had also been seen landing at nearby Lakenheath. It was during a subsequent reconnaissance of the base, after the activists had spent some considerable time learning what different types of munition looked like, that suspicions were raised about cluster bombs being stored at Lakenheath. Mell explained that, "when we saw cluster bombs at Lakenheath at a time when we knew the planes were destined for Iraq, we knew we had to take action."

No comments: