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How we held one of the world’s largest arms companies to account

Amy Clark-Bryan was among 30 activists who challenged BAE Systems at its AGM earlier this month.

A line of people hold placards in front of BAE Systems background

On 4 May about 30 activists from Campaign Against Arms Trade and Stop the Arms Fair went to the BAE Systems AGM. We were there to hold the world’s third largest arms producer to account. BAE Systems is arming the repressive Saudi Arabia with UK-made warplanes which are being used in air strikes in Yemen.

We arrived at the Waterloo Action Centre bright and early for a briefing. The sense of disgust at BAE Systems and people’s eagerness to expose and challenge their actions grew throughout the meeting. Once we’d discussed what part we’d like to take in the BAE AGM we set off for Farnborough.

A train journey and bus shuttle ride (courtesy of BAE) later we arrived at the corporate event, held in a airplane hangar which in July will used for Farnborough International, a major arms fair. Once we’d passed through the airport style security we entered an exhibition area where BAE proudly displayed their work and achievements. I walked among shareholders, glancing at the displays of warplanes and weaponry with a surreal feeling and sense of disbelief that an arms company could produce such a vast array of arms that it then sells indiscriminately around the world.
A person holds a sign that says "1.4 million children in Yemen are acutely malnourished" in front of a BAE Systems logo
But the most haunting part of the day was the AGM itself. Most of us sat through the spiel from the BAE Chair Roger Carr, where he detailed BAE’s successes over the year and how well they are advancing in the field of “defence”. Some activists felt moved to stand, facing the audience, in a silent protest holding placards that exposed truths of what is happening in Yemen. Security quickly removed them from the conference, with shouts and songs of protest from the activists as they were carried out of the AGM.

After Roger Carr finished his presentation, the opportunity many of us had been patiently waiting for arose. As shareholders, as well as being able to attend the AGM, we are able to ask questions of our choosing. Aside from a few questions from ‘real’ shareholders about BAE’s market expansio and the number of women BAE employs, we dominated the question and answer session.

Our questions focused on BAE’s complicity in Saudi Arabia’s attacks on Yemen. But the answers we received were just empty statements that BAE’s “purpose is to protect peace”. So we referred him to the UN report into Saudia Arabia’s strikes in Yemen that found “widespread and systematic” attacks on civilian targets in violation of international humanitarian law. Looking progressively weaker and weaker on the stage, Roger Carr persisted that the “legitimacy from the United Kingdom’s government” allows BAE’s work to carry on.

As the AGM was drawn to an early close because Roger Carr was fed up with being questioned repeatedly on Saudi Arabia, a group of activists ‘died’ at the entrance to the meeting. Shareholders were forced to walk over and then around bodies. Once most people had left to enjoy their free lunch, one cheeky activist managed to cover Roger Carr in red glitter.

A line of security stand in front of people lying on the ground

BAE security surround the ‘die-in’ as shareholders leave the AGM

It felt empowering to stand up to BAE and to question its Board on its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Roger Carr seemed so far removed from even a consideration that what BAE is doing is immoral or that they have a choice in what their company does. We need to keep challenging arms companies and exposing the role they have in fuelling conflict and war – and take action to stop them.

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