Working to stop the war in Yemen: Interview with peace activist Sam Walton

Working to stop the war in Yemen: Interview with peace activist Sam Walton
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
11 April 2017

On 3 April 2017 Sam Walton made headlines when he attempted to carry out a citizen’s arrest of Saudi Arabian Major General Ahmed al-Asiri in London.

Walton, a British Quaker activist, explained the reasoning behind his actions to Ian Sinclair.

Ian Sinclair: Why did you attempt a citizen’s arrest of Major General Ahmed al-Asiri?

Sam Walton: Al-Asiri is a senior adviser and spokesperson for a regime that routinely carries out executions, locks up journalists and tortures dissenters. It’s a regime that would never allow the kind of protest I took part in, let alone allow the publication of an article like this.

Al-Asiri is the frontman for the Saudi military and a spokesperson for the terrible bombardment of Yemen. The bombing has lasted for over two years now, destroying vital infrastructure and killing thousands of civilians. In that time, Saudi forces have flouted international humanitarian law and shown a total contempt for human rights.

Last year, a leaked UN expert panel report into the war reported widespread and systematic attacks on civilian targets, as well as starvation being used as a weapon of war. The punishment has been indiscriminate. One month after the UN report, al-Asiri told Reuters, “Now our rules of engagement are: you are close to the border, you are killed.”

Saudi forces haven’t just shown a total disregard for international law and human rights, but also for the truth. In November 2016 al-Asiri told ITV that Saudi forces had not been using cluster bombs in Yemen, only for the UK parliament to later admit that they had.

It’s a sign of how warped Whitehall’s priorities are when a man like al-Asiri, a senior adviser to one of the most brutal and oppressive regimes in the world, can be welcomed and invited to meet with MPs and whitewash his crimes to prestigious think-tanks. If real justice is to be done, then governments like the UK’s need to stop putting arms sales ahead of human rights and call for people like al-Asiri to be arrested and investigated for war crimes.

IS: Al-Asiri was in London when you tried to arrest him. Does the UK bear some responsibility for Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen?

SW: The UK’s complicity in the destruction has been so absolute that it only made me more determined to stop the General. How could I ignore him when the government of the country I live in has offered political and military support for the appalling war that he and his colleagues have waged?

In fact, it’s not just been supportive – it’s played an utterly central role. Data compiled by Campaign Against Arms Trade shows that the UK has licensed over £3bn worth of arms to the Saudi regime since the bombing began. These include many of the fighter jets flying over Yemen and the bombs falling from the sky.

The impact of the bombing has been devastating. There are already 17 million people in Yemen that are food insecure and need humanitarian intervention – how much worse does it have to get before the UK finally does the right thing and stops fuelling their suffering?

I’ve been frustrated for a long time about this, and have tried pretty much everything to stop my country arming Saudi Arabia. That’s why a couple of months ago I broke into BAE’s Warton base to try and physically disarm the Saudi warplanes we are making and servicing that are being used in crimes against humanity in Yemen.

IS: Can you talk a little about the planning and preparation that went into the action?

SW: There was barely any planning at all – we had very little notice of where al-Asiri was going to be or when. It was simply a group of people with a high level of trust using our different expertise and skills to make this happen.

IS: Some people dismiss activism as something that doesn’t make a difference, arguing that “nothing ever changes”. However, your action seems to have made a big impact already?

SW: As I’m sure you’ve seen on the internet, some people are wrong.

The Saudis have a contempt for democracy and get very upset by any form of protest against them. It’s frankly pathetic that the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to grovel an apology for the incident. He should have defended our democratic protest and demanded an apology for al-Asiri’s guards interrupting the citizen’s arrest. His behaviour does show our government’s dedication to pursuing arms sales at the expense of the rule of law, human rights and ultimately the humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding in Yemen right now – driven primarily by a Saudi bombardment using British weapons. What is amusing is that we wouldn’t have known about Boris’ apology if the Saudi’s weren’t so thin skinned and press released it in a desperate attempt to save face.

We’ve helped to trigger a very serious legal process – the Metropolitan Police’s War Crimes Unit looking into the allegations of war crimes. Something that could lead to al-Asiri being questioned or even arrested if he sets foot in the UK again. Of course political interference from upon high will mean ultimately that goes nowhere. But that too has a cost for the government and arms trade when it comes to the legitimacy and the social license it needs to operate.

Not only that but it’s put a dampener on Theresa May’s trip to Saudi Arabia – a trip with a primary purpose of securing more arms sales. Royals and ministers have been visiting Saudi Arabia for decades to flog arms, but I can’t remember a visit where they have had anything like this level of opposition to it. It was not public that the Prime Minister was off to Saudi when the action happened – it turns out al-Asiri’s presence in the UK was designed to whitewash Saudi’s crimes in Yemen. Our action meant al-Asiri’s trip to the UK had the opposite effect – it framed the media agenda into one about Saudi war crimes and British complicity in them.

All in all we’ve caused a diplomatic incident, made the British Foreign Secretary apologise, disrupted the core purpose of a Prime Ministerial visit, and made news headlines across the world criticising the Saudi bombardment of Yemen and British arms sales to them. Not bad work for a couple of hours work from less than a dozen people.

IS: Beyond attempting a citizen arrest of Saudi Arabian government officials visiting the UK, what other action do you suggest people concerned about the continuing war in Yemen could take?

SW: It’s important that we protest any official Saudi government presence in the UK at the moment since 2.2 million children are in danger of starvation because of their actions in the Yemen. If you see them coming, get some people together and make a scene. This is particularly effective because they hate hate hate protest and, because they can’t lock you up and torture you as they would do in Saudi, just don’t know how to deal with it.

In the absence of a Saudi presence in your vicinity, Campaign Against Arms Trade have a wonderful set of ideas of what you can do about Britain’s out of control arms sales. They are currently organising opposition to DSEI – one if not the biggest arms fairs in the world which is coming to London in September. Get involved!

More broadly I think one of the secrets to a happy life is asking yourself how can your gifts be used to make a better world. The answers can be pretty broad! But acting on them always brings joy in my experience.

Follow Sam Walton on Twitter @samwalton.

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