As COVID-19 forces sweeping changes on our lives, our Government’s obsession with investing in military security over real human threats has been laid bare. Billions have been poured into aircraft carriers, nuclear weapons and war ships, but our health and social care services were on their knees even before the crisis hit.
Amidst the uncertainty, there is a ray of hope. For years CAAT and others have argued that arms company workers have the vital skills needed to build a new greener economy. Yet the political will needed was not there.
The urgency brought by the pandemic saw these blocks lifted almost overnight. Faced with a shortage of ventilators, many of the biggest arms companies including Thales, BAE and Airbus joined Ventilator Challenge UK, a consortium building ventilation equipment, showing how, with government support, change can happen on the factory floor.
At a time when millions of people across the world are concerned about food supplies and the ability of our health systems to respond to crisis, we must keep up the pressure for peace in Yemen, a country whose fragile health system has been devastated by five years of war.
This is a war supported by the UK government, with UK-based arms companies profiting from the destruction. Now more than ever, it is time for peace.
At the time of writing in early April, there are new reports of Saudi forces declaring a two week ceasefire. This is the second ceasefire to be reported in as many weeks – but we still have to still hope this one holds and is taken up by other parties to the conflict. The UK and other arms dealing governments can play their part by finally ending their arms sales and support for the continuing bombardment.
As the UK adjusts to life under lockdown and social distancing measures to combat the spread of COVID-19, local groups and campaigners are taking their work online. Things are difficult right now, but alongside the anxiety and fear there are local and national networks of people connecting, supporting and caring for each other. Meaningful change needs strong communities, and the strong relationships and solidarity of our local groups and networks can help us.
With arms companies and governments forces to recognise that war and militarism cannot protect us from the real threats we face and redeploying troops and resources towards public health, this is also a moment of deep transition and change. Nothing will be the same afterwards, and social justice campaigners need to help shape the conversation about what comes next.
London CAAT are one of the groups who have taken their meetings online. They have even held an online day of action, shifting their vigil for Yemen online. Long-time campaigner and London CAAT member Ian Pocock says:
In February the Government announced that it was undertaking an Integrated Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy Review. Responding, the Commons’ Defence Select Committee invited three military academic experts to give evidence on 10 March. It was business as usual, with no mention of coronavirus or pandemics.
What a difference a week makes. On 17 March a former Chief of the Defence Staff and a former National Security Adviser were up before the Defence Committee. This time the discussion was dominated by coronavirus with both the witnesses stressing that pandemics had been a top tier risk when they were involved in the 2010 Review.
Creative Action online: People show support for the victims of the Yemen war
For obvious reasons, activism on the streets is not an option at the moment but we can continue our activism in other ways (all hail the internet!). For example, we couldn’t hold our vigil for Yemen as planned at the UK Trade and Investment Defence and Security Organisation, so we held an online day of action alongside activists from across Europe. Keeping it simple in terms of asks seemed to work (a maximum of two should do it).
We asked people to post about the devastating effect of the war on the Yemeni people and the UK’s complicity in it as well as asking them to write to the Attorney General to ask him to move forward with the prosecution of Airbus on corruption charges regarding a deal to supply communications equipment to the Saudi Arabian National Guard – you can still do that here.
When asking people to make posts online, including some suggested text and statistics for social media posts increases the likelihood of people taking action as it makes it easy for them to repost. Providing them with relevant information and links is also useful – they can include this info in any actions they take/posts they write.
When meetings are online, you need to facilitate them differently. During our last meeting, we used a hands up system – i.e. when someone wanted to speak, they raised their hand and the chair would give them the floor, so to speak. This prevented people speaking over each other. One person wasn’t able to get their video to work so we got them to write a letter in the chat function when they wanted to speak but obviously it is best to get everyone on camera as that aids the flow of the meeting so sending round clear instructions on how to use whatever software you are using is key.
You could also ask people who are using the software for the first time/think they will struggle with it to sign on with you prior to the meeting so you can troubleshoot any problems. Most of the packages include options for sharing your screen so that can allow you to share any websites or documents with others (and allow them to share anything relevant too).
Each group may take different approaches but it is worth thinking about how you onboard new members (this can equally apply to in person meetings too!), both in terms of how you introduce them to your group and its purpose when you can’t meet them in person and also in terms of security, particularly if your actions involve non-violent direct action. We’ll be sharing more tips on that in the next week or two so stay tuned!
We hope all CAAT’s supporters are well and keeping safe. A lot of CAAT’s work will be evolving over the coming months as we adapt to the current crisis. Staff are working remotely, local group meetings and activities are moving online, and we’re looking at how Covid-19 interlinks with our different areas of work.
Some parts of the arms trade are on hold too. The biennial arms fair at Farnborough, where weapons were due to be promoted to military buyers from around the world, has already been cancelled. But in other areas it’s important we maintain our scrutiny.
Increase in state powers and policing
From ramped up surveillance of citizens in China and Singapore to accusations of a racist, politicised response in Sri Lanka, governments globally are responding with measures that some fear could outlast the pandemic, and further harm marginalised groups.
The UK Government’s COVID-19 Bill contains powers lasting two years which give police new rights to detain people. While this may make some feel safer, it’s a worrying move while people of colour are already subjected to disproportionate levels of detention and state violence in the UK. Read more about the new laws.
As yet there are no confirmed cases of Covid-19 within Yemen, but five long years of catastrophic war have destroyed its healthcare system. Ahmed Aidarous, 36, a resident of the southwestern city of Taiz, told the Middle East Eye, “Advanced countries like America are unable to fight coronavirus so Yemen will be an easy victim for corona as there is no good health system or good leadership that can help.”
The Saudi-backed Yemeni government has closed schools and cancelled all flights, which had only just resumed for people who needed to leave the country to access healthcare abroad. Mwatana for Human Rights reports that at least 45 people had already lost their lives waiting for promised humanitarian flights to access healthcare.
We took action this month to mark five years of war in Yemen, and stand together in solidarity and resistance. While coronavirus means there is a risk that the war is forgotten, it’s as important as ever that we keep up the pressure for peace and end UK arms sales.
The first case of Covid-19 has been diagnosed at Yarl’s Wood, the immigration detention Centre in Bedford which holds survivors of torture and sexual violence, and where racist verbal, physical and sexual abuse have been reported. Already experiencing high levels of mental distress and self harm, now detainees face the risk of infection by Covid-19.
The Centre is run by the world’s 73rd largest arms company Serco Group, who work closely with the UK military sector, winning £92m of Ministry of Defence contracts in 2018. A legal case related to the health crisis forced the Government to release 300 detainees recently, but thousands remain detained across the UK. There have been over 30 deaths reported in UK immigration centres, and thousands of attempted suicides.
CAAT is developing its thinking around UK borders policy, as the Government’s ‘hostile environment’ immigration strategy is part of a wider racist, state sponsored violence that keeps weapons flowing to countries where they predominantly harm people of colour.
It is also some of the same arms companies profiting from weapons sales causing many to flee their homes which profit again when they win lucrative contracts to provide security services and surveillance technologies at increasingly militarised borders. Find out more about the companies profiting twice.
Arms to ventilators?
In these turbulent and challenging times we will be looking for hope too – that in future when governments tell us things can’t change, we know that change can come almost overnight when the political will is there.
Rolls Royce, who produce military aircraft engines, and aerospace companies like Airbus which profit from the sale of fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, have been called on by the UK government to help produce components for ventilators in the fight against coronavirus. The case for moving our engineering skills from industries that take lives to ones that save them has never been stronger.
Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency, recently called government economic stimulus packages in response to the coronavirus crisis as “a historic opportunity” to tackle the climate emergency. “This is a huge opportunity we cannot miss,” he said. “Here the issue is not only the level of money but the direction of the money”.
Find out more about the call to convert jobs in arms manufacturing to greener, more socially useful industries in the New Lucas Plan.
We can also see more than ever that our security is not advanced by wars, or by spending billions on nuclear weapons systems and aircraft carriers, but by building fairer societies that support the most vulnerable, and by investing in our public services like the NHS and social care.
Let’s work together to ensure that out of this crisis we create a Just Recovery, and build a world where real human needs, are prioritised.
Today we stand in solidarity with Yemen. At a time when millions of people across the world are concerned about food supplies and the ability of our health systems to respond to crisis, Yemen must not be forgotten.
Today marks five years since a Saudi-Arabian led coalition began bombing Yemen – five years in which Yemen’s health system has “almost collapsed.”