This speech was given at the launch of Mothers for a Progressive Alliance, 18th November 2017.
I’d like to share a couple of stories: that of Bibi Mamana, killed by a drone missile strike in Pakistan in 2012; and of Jamila Ali Abdu, a little girl who died this year of hunger and disease in Yemen aged just seven.
According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Bibi Mamana was “in her 60s, a grandmother, the wife of the retired headmaster in Miranshah, Pakistan, and a midwife who ‘delivered hundreds of babies‘ in her community.
Mamana and several of her grandchildren were outside the family home. She was picking okra, gathering wood for Eid al Adha and tending to livestock when she was hit.
It is not clear how many missiles were fired. But Mamana’s eight-year-old granddaughter Nabeela was 20m away from where they hit. She told The Times: ‘I saw the first two missiles coming through the air… They were following each other with fire at the back. When they hit the ground, there was a loud noise. After that I don’t remember anything.’ Nabeela was injured by flying shrapnel.”
The other person I want to mention is Jamila Ali Abdu, who was seven years old when she died earlier this year in Yemen. Yemen is currently in the middle of a war, between rebels in the south and government forces in the north backed by a a coalition led by Saudi Arabia. For two years, according to Reuters, she had been suffering from the effects of worms and a bacterial infection, made worse by malnutrition. These conditions are treatable, but in a country currently being torn apart by war, there was no way her family to get her to medical care in the capital Sanaa. Even if they could reach the city, they would have found that many of the hospitals who could treat her were shut down due to direct bombing or lack of medical supplies.
And so the clinic in Hodeidah, near her village, could only try and make her as comfortable as they could while she slipped away. One of many thousands of children who have died in that country during the last few years of war and violence.
When you hear these stories it is very easy to feel powerless, that these are things that happened far away – crimes committed by persons unknown, seemingly at random.
But what if I told you that many of the people responsible for these tragedies and others like them were in London two months ago; and that a movement of ordinary people -campaigners, mothers, people of faith, refugees – came together to try and hold them to account for these and many other acts?
The first question we should ask though is why here: why London?
Let’s talk about the UK’s involvement in the arms trade.
The UK is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of weapons. The international arms trade is secretive and accurate figures are hard to come by. But it is believed to amount to some £90 billion in 2016, of which the UK sold some £6bn, making it the largest supplier of weapons after the United States.
Sales mostly go to developing countries, in particular the Middle East, of which Saudi Arabia in the biggest buyer.
It is a massive transfer of wealth from the world’s poorest to the world’s richest.
The countries being armed are typically those ruled by repressive regimes – like those in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
The impact of these weapons is two-fold. First, the cost of buying and maintaining the weapon falls on the country. Then, the weapon is used: that’s the second cost.
More than 100,000 people die in armed conflict every year. Half are combatants, the other half, non-combatants. Of these, more than half are women and children. Many are in their prime of life, important workers and carers for their families.
Mamana, the midwife in Pakistan, was the most important carer and breadwinner in her family. She was killed by a drone. She was not in a war zone, and the people who fired the weapon were likely to be based in Florida or Lincolnshire. But she is unusual in that her death was acknowledged. If you look at the names of those known to be killed by drone strikes in Pakistan, they are almost always men. Yet many of the drone attacks are on family complexes, which women in that society are not permitted to leave. So, where are the women on the casualty lists? The answer is that they are not recorded either by the attackers, or by those in the line of fire: men are the targets, and the main concern. The presence of women casualties is shameful. And so they die unremarked.
Jamila, the little girl, is an example of another kind of casualty, not part of the 100,000 total. As war disrupts food supplies, sanitation, and medical care collapses, and then disease and famine break out. In Yemen, we are seeing the world’s biggest cholera outbreak and one of world’s biggest ever famines. Its cause is the bombing and blockading by Saudi Arabia and its allies. And as we have already heard, many of the bombs and the planes used to drop them have been supplied from the U.K.
Not only did the UK not slow arms supplies to Saudi Arabia once the war in Yemen started, it increased them: up by 170 percent over the last three years. It did this despite evidence of war crimes being presented by NGOs, and despite concerns from the European Union and United Nations.
So when the world’s largest arms fair was due to be held in London in September, and the invitations went out to the Saudis and UAE, as well as to drone makers and bomb makers, a lot of people decided that it had to be stopped and got together to disrupt the set up and its operations.
First of all, a whole lot of vehicles were blocked. Activists sat in, locked on, clambered on top of the vehicles, clambered under the vehicles, some clambered under vehicles dressed as Charlie Chaplin.
They added locks to bridges, dropped banners from bridges, abseiled down and swung underneath bridges.They danced in the road, they dressed up like Daleks, Doctor Who and Darth Vader in the road. The campaigners sang in the road, made music in the road, gave talks in the road, prayed in the road, held meetings in the road, had lunch in the road.
They remembered and were in solidarity with all those killed by these terrible weapons, and they did it in front of the blocked vehicles trying to sell more.
They created spaces where people could learn about the arms trade. A camp where people could stay, talk, and hold seminars and workshops. Places where they could dance and let their hair down.
They took these spaces out into the City.
Creating dramatic spaces across Central London where people could interact with the weapons on sale at DSEI and “meet the arms dealers”.
They created spaces where people could share art and reflect and learn more. They took some of that art to various bus shelters, billboards and tube trains!
They took to the airwaves, got in the newspapers, got onto people’s social media feeds, put leaflets through doors.
The result was massive disruption to the arms fair, displays not ready, press and events and VIP visits postponed, questions in the Houses of Parliament, support from the Mayor of London, and a news cycle where the campaign could be found in every national publication.
But the real message is this: we as ordinary people can stand up for women like Bibi Mamana and girls like Jamila Ali Abdu. The powerful governments and companies who profit from their deaths can be held accountable by groups of people, like us.
Let’s organise, work together and create a world we can all live in.
For more information contact Campaign Against Arms Trade. https://www.caat.org.uk/