Arms trade trial raises key issues about the industry, churches and protest

Arms trade trial raises key issues about the industry, churches and protest

While the trial at Stratford Magistrates' Court in east London of five Christian anti-arms fair protesters is tough on the defendants (including Ekklesia associate Symon Hill), it is already doing a good job of exposing the issues in a number of ways.

First, as our report of the first day of proceedings indicates (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/20083), it is exposing the dark underbelly of the arms trade to further light – not least the illegal torture equipment which was being displayed at the DSEi exhibition in London last September, and against which the five on trial were praying and protesting.

Second, it has also galvanised some significant forces within the churches (notably the World Methodist Council, the United Reformed Church here in Britain, US evangelical Baptist leader Tony Campolo, and former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams) to raise deeper questions about the whole arms industry and its export engine.

Third, the fact that it is the protesters who are on trial, not people from companies that illegally attempted to sell instruments of torture and repression, tells its own story. What is 'legal' is also hardly moral, either. That is crucial. The law can be an instrument of justice, but it can also be a tool that shields us from the true nature of what is just and unjust, because its final interests are bound up with states and the violent defence of them.

Fourth, there is the question as to what the churches support and sanction in terms of active resistance to, and witness against, cultures of institutional death-dealing and oppression.

As Steve Hucklesby from the Methodist Church, and the Free Churches' Joint Public Issues Team says: "On the same day [as the five were protesting through prayer] two companies were thrown out of the arms fair for displaying illegal torture equipment. It is pointed out that neither company was charged for this breach.

"Were the five justified in disobeying the law when police officers demanded that they pack up and move on? Our denominations celebrate actions of civil disobedience from our churches’ history, such as the Tolpuddle Martyrs, for example. But it is maybe instructive to note that many of the instances of civil disobedience of the past did not have the endorsement of church institutions at the time. The five on trial today at least have had the public support of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, World Methodist Council and the General Secretary of the URC amongst others.

"But to my mind the more critical question concerns the object of the protest. Even in the midst of recession, global arms sales have continued to rise damaging the prospects of developing nations and fuelling conflict. Our government continues to support and promote UK leadership in the business of profiting from the weapons of war. We need prophetic Christian witness to challenge the morality of the arms trade."

We wish our good friend Symon Hill and his co-defendants all the very best for day two, and will of course be updating on proceedings and the implications of the trial outcome.

* More from Ekklesia on protests against the London Arms Fair: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/8731

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. You can follow him on Twitter at: @simonbarrow

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