Talk given by Angie Zelter at a Public Meeting for the Aldermaston to Faslane Peace Walk Wesley Memorial Hall, Oxford, 28th June, 2000.
Trident Ploughshares is one of the latest in a long and honourable line of citizen’s initiatives to try to rid the world of nuclear weapons. It is dedicated to peaceful acts of practical disarmament. The whole campaign is based on international law and the basic human right to life. People from many different nations come together as ’global citizens’ and begin the task of peacefully dismantling the nuclear system This involves the safe destruction of fences and equipment just as it does when it is part of an ’official’ international disarmament agreement. It is not criminal damage but practical and lawful ’people’s’ disarmament.
Of course, the government and its institutions do not see it this way. Since Trident Ploughshares began in August 1998 – there have been 604 arrests, mainly at the disarmament camps, held every three months, at Coulport and Faslane in Scotland. There have been 67 trials completed and 730 days have been spent in prison, not including the days in police custody. Although around £10,000 worth of fines have been imposed so far, only a very small proportion of these have been paid as most disarmers are refusing to pay.
We now have 169 ’global citizens’ from 14 different countries who have Pledged to Prevent Nuclear Crime and have taken part in a two-day workshop on nonviolence. Having citizens from other countries joining in our disarmament work with us, appearing in the courts and spending time in our prisons, has been much harder for the authorities to deal with. The Government and the Courts like to pretend that British nuclear weapons are purely a British affair but they find this position untenable when foreigners appear in court to explain why they feel threatened by Britain and why they are joining with many other nationalities as ’global citizens’ and why they have pledged to peacefully disarm British Trident.
The Pledge is based upon our right, under international law, to take nonviolent, accountable, and safe actions to disarm the British Trident nuclear weapons system. The Pledge and the common training form the basis of our ability to co-operate safely and easily with other Pledgers when we come together in the camps. We may not personally know each other but we know we share a common basis for action.
We make sure our plans, motivations and organisational structures are open to the public, the government and military. We have a freely-accessible web-site which contains all our materials including our Tri-Denting It Handbook. We send updated lists of all Pledgers to the Government every three months, along with our continued requests for dialogue and negotiation.
At the very beginning of the campaign we formed a dialogue and negotiation team which produced the first Open Letter to the Prime Minister on 18th March 1998 and which has been sending regular three monthly letters ever since. This group contains people connected at an international level with the Conference on Disarmament, the Middle Powers Initiative and the New Agenda Coalition, so that the information and the requests made to the UK Government are in line and consistent with the international peace movement.
We net-work with several other organisations like the World Court Project, CND and Global 2000 in our lobbying work and have kept up a constant stream of Parliamentary Questions which are now yielding some useful answers. We encourage Parliamentarians to sign our Petition of Support and now have around 80 including 13 from the new Scottish Parliament, 9 from the Welsh Assembly, as well as 14 MEPs. They help get answers to our letters, ask questions for us and are now beginning to join us in our disarmament actions.
Our Petition of Support is very similar to the Pledge that each Trident Ploughshares Pledger signs and is thus a good indication of the general support the campaign is getting. We recently had an Archbishop, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Wales, sign in support. The Petitions of Support are signed by organisations, famous people and individuals, giving us a good spectrum of support from many different parts of society that we can publicise, so that we cannot be easily marginalised.
We have also written to the police authorities and heads of the judicial system even suggesting to the Attorney General and Lord Advocate that they should arrest all 169 of us for signing the Pledge if they think we are conspiring to commit crimes but that in our opinion it is the Government and Military who should be arrested for grave breaches of international humanitarian law. We work in this safe, open and accountable manner because we want our methods for opposing Trident to be consistent with our vision of what we would like to see in its place.
Our careful reliance upon nonviolence and open accountability have led to very good relations with the general public and with the civil police, who are noting the embarrassment of the Ministry of Defence as we regularly breach the high security areas, gain access to Military police boats to do citizens war crime inspections and swim onto supposedly secure nuclear submarines. As a measure of our good relations with the civil police I take it as a vote of confidence that after initial suspicions from the police around Aldermaston in the run up to the camp in May, they took our advice and visited the police around Faslane and Coulport and were thereafter much more amenable even helping with our car parking problems. This is a useful example of how radical resistance and confrontation against evil systems can nevertheless be done with good humour and respect to individuals. I am sure that our strict guidelines on no alcohol or drugs has helped tremendously in ensuring good personal relationships, which are essential in any real peacemaking.
The Ministry of Defence Police’s Annual Report stated last year, ’The largest policing event of the year was that of the Trident Ploughshares 2000 fortnight of activity in August’. It goes on to say that over a five-week period an additional 500 officers, above normal tasking levels were deployed. This shows it would not take much to overstretch them considering that they only have a total of around 4,000 officers for the whole of the UK! However, more importantly, the Report uses phrases such as ’declared open actions’ and also states ’Throughout the period, activists pursued various forms of non-violent direct action to express their feelings against nuclear weapons and the Trident programme in particular’. It is significant that in court the majority of police witnesses readily agree that we are peaceful and courteous. So they have certainly got part of our message. The other part – that they should be arresting the military personnel for engaging in conspiracy to commit mass murder – is proving more difficult for them to take on board, though I am sure we have some hidden support for our views!
All Trident Ploughshares Pledgers must be in affinity groups and agree to the safety and nonviolence groundrules but thereafter they work as autonomously as they wish. They have chosen various kinds of disarmament actions which have ranged from blockades, to fence-cutting, to swimming onto the submarines and destroying equipment, to dismantling a research lab, to painting War Crime Warnings on Military equipment and handing out leaflets to Military Base workers urging them to ’Refuse to be a War Criminal’. We encourage as much diverse and active disarmament work as possible as long as it is safe and peaceful. We also encourage de-commissioning work at as many different Trident related sites as possible. Our Handbook lists around 35 different Trident related sites in the UK and we have carried out crime prevention activities at 7 so far, concentrating on Faslane, Coulport, Aldermaston and Barrow.
The majority of the disarmament actions have caused minimal damage for maximum court-clogging disruption. There have also been at least six attempts at substantial disarmament damage in the last 18 months, with two groups managing to complete their actions causing hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of damage and delaying the operation of the Trident related equipment. In February of 1999, for instance, Rachel and Rosie swam on to Vengeance at Barrow and destroyed the testing equipment on the conning tower – their trial will be heard at Manchester Crown Court on September 11th. We call all of this damage – ’disarmament’ and ’nuclear crime prevention’.
The effect of all the cases at Helensburgh District Court, which have arisen from actions at Faslane and Coulport, has been cumulative. One of the Magistrates has admitted that the administration is overwhelming them which is why so many mistakes are being made and why so few people are being called to court. It is encouraging that more and more local people are getting involved. And the ample sprinkling of foreign nationals keeps the international perspective to the fore so that the whole campaign does not become stultified by parochialism. We stress the global impact of threatening to use weapons of indiscriminate mass murder at all times and in many different languages. A happy side-effect of this international co-operation has been the provision of welcome employment for local linguists who come to the court to translate the proceedings for some of our foreign activists.
The media were slow to report the emerging public discussion, awareness and concern at the ongoing nuclear arms race. They thought the nuclear arms issue had gone away with the ending of the Cold War. However, Trident Ploughshares Pledgers have been passionately witnessing in court. In many different and compelling ways they have been exposing the destructive horror of Trident’s nuclear warheads, the undermining of international law, the plans for the next generation of nuclear weapons and the criminal support for Star Wars. Then, the acquittal of three of us at Greenock Sheriff’s Court last year helped propel the debate right into the limelight in Scotland and the nuclear weapons issue is now high on the agenda.
You may remember a few of the headlines from the Scottish newspapers of 22nd October last year:
’Outcry as Sheriff rules nuclear weapons illegal.’ [The Scotsman – 22/10/99]
’A Sheriff made legal history and caused a political storm after ruling that the Government’s deployment of nuclear weapons was illegal under international law … It is the first time a country’s law courts have declared its nuclear defence system illegal and the political fall-out from Sheriff Gimblett’s decision will be felt by other nuclear powers.’ [The Herald – 22/10/99]
The furore continues, with resolutions and notices in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and at Westminster supporting our acquittal.
It is interesting to examine why our acquittal at Greenock is still causing ripples. I think it is because the law has traditionally been used against the people rather than the state. Yet now, the people (the Trident Ploughshares Pledgers) have turned this around and have openly challenged the whole legal basis, and thus legitimacy, of the Armed Forces. Such a challenge has, of course, been mounted time and time again over the last 55 years of anti-nuclear campaigning. Nuclear weapons have always been unlawful and the Shimoda case in Tokyo, in the sixties, showed very clearly that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were war crimes. However, few citizen’s campaigns have used the law in such a pointed and consistent manner as Trident Ploughshares. Trident Ploughshares has based its whole campaign on international law and has used it to de-legitimise nuclear weapons and legitimise our own actions and we have done it in a highly public and confrontational manner so it cannot be ignored. And we have kept the moral arguments to the fore as well, by emphasising the links between morality and law. Trident Ploughshares uses the ICJ Advisory Opinion of 1996 as a strong legal foundation and can be seen as a way to implement this Opinion and to pressurise our Governments to uphold international law.
Our argument is very straightforward.
Nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction and thus cannot be used with any precision or any pretence at righting any wrong. It is basically mass murder on a catastrophic scale with the potential for escalation to the use of thousands of nuclear weapons, which could put an end to all life on earth. Law is based upon morality and is respected in so far, and only in so far, as it conforms to common human morality. Governments, Soldiers and Armed Forces gain their legitimacy and power from the law and thus the law is of immense importance to them. The only thing that distinguishes a soldier from a common murderer is that he has been given legal permission to do certain kinds of killing on behalf of society. This legalised killing is carefully controlled by laws – the most important of which are international humanitarian laws. Our acquittal at Greenock, cleared us of criminal intent and at the same time clearly pointed out the criminal intent of the British nuclear forces.
The acquittal has encouraged many more people to join in the disarmament work and to feel confident about saying they are preventing crime not causing it. When Tommy Sheridan, the SSP member of the Scottish Parliament, was in court for his plea hearing after blockading with us in February, it was great to hear him say that he was upholding international law and to wonder why he was being charged at all considering he would have been treated as a hero if he had disarmed a gun in the High Street.
In view of all the controversy the Government have been forced to institute a very rare legal process in Scotland called a Lord Advocate’s Reference. This is because our acquittal cannot be appealed and they are challenging it by the back door in this manner to try to stop any other Judges giving similar acquittals. The process is meant to be an inquisitorial one whereby certain questions are put to the High Court Judges by the Lord Advocate for them to clarify the law. The validity of citizens acting to prevent international crime in Scotland as well as the content of international law will come under scrutiny. The proceedings will start on October 9th at Edinburgh High Court and we hope there will be a large audience. However, important though this challenge is to the Judiciary, our direct and peaceful people’s disarmament will continue until there are no nuclear weapons left in the UK. Whatever the state of the Scottish legal system, international humanitarian law must and will take precedence.
On February 14th we succeeded in blocking all road entrances into the Faslane base for several hours. There were 185 arrests including 10 Church ministers and 2 Parliamentarians. A further 55 people were arrested in May at Aldermaston. We will see what happens this August at Faslane. I hope you will all be joining the blockade on August 1st – people power needs to be applied and the pressure needs to be applied in Scotland at the moment. You are all needed. So, please be at Faslane on August 1st.
We can start to dismantle the nuclear weapon system – start the disarmament process ourselves. We are not committing a crime we are preventing a crime. We are not powerless – on the contrary, we have a great deal of power. Let us use it carefully, peacefully, and accountably. Together.