Dockers against arms: Fighting weapons trade in Europe’s ports

It is 5 o’clock in the morning. The lantern, the city’s symbolic lighthouse, towers over the Genoa harbour and illuminates “those districts where the good Lord’s sun does not give its rays”, as a famous song puts it.

Some of the dockers are having breakfast in the bars dotted around the labyrinth of streets that is the port. Coffee and a cream croissant, two euros. Asked about the Bahri company’s ship, one docker gets up to show the way. He works right next to the quay where it docked the day before. But the quay is an off-limits area, and the guardian of the Delta shipping agency, the company that holds the contract with Bahri, lifts the bar only for those who have permission to enter.

Arming a catastrophic war

Bahri is a company controlled by the Saudi government. Founded in 1978 as the National Shipping Company of Saudi Arabia, it is the world’s largest owner and operator of large tankers. Although its biggest business is oil transport, it has been running Riyadh’s military logistics monopoly since 2014. Of its 90 ships, six are used to transport weapons. They always take the same route, from the United States to Saudi Arabia, via Italy and, more rarely, Spain. It is a journey that takes two months to get there and two months back. Each of the ships is named after a Saudi city: Abha, Hofuf, Jazan, Jeddah, Tabuk and Yanbu.

Arms exports are not illegal. But international treaties prohibit international transfers of weapons that could be used to commit war crimes, such as direct attacks at the civilian population. Saudi Arabia is deeply involved in a war in neighbouring Yemen. This conflict remains one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world. The economy has been shattered, and civilian infrastructure destroyed. Late last year, the UN projected that 377,000 people would have been killed by year’s end, directly and indirectly from the war. Eight of ten Yemenis need emergency aid, and famine is imminent, according to Oxfam.

Protests in Italy

A port employee shows a roof position to take pictures of the ship. “Hurry up,” he says, “no more than ten minutes, because if you get caught, you are going to get your ass kicked.” There lies the Bahri Yanbu in all its majesty. Tomorrow she’ll leave again for Saudi Arabia. It is a ritual that is repeated on average once every three weeks.

Ship “Bahri Yanbu” docking in Genoa | Photo: Lorenzo Buzzoni

“It is easy to see when the next Bahri ship will arrive. Just look at the line-up of police trucks in front of the quay that are there to prevent protests and prying eyes,” says the employee. That would be protests against the the ship’s cargo: tanks, armoured vehicles, Apache helicopters and explosives. 

Protests in Spain

The first protests in Europe against the Bahri ships began in the port of Bilbao. In March 2017, Ina Robles, a firefighter, discovered that explosive material bound for Saudi Arabia was loaded onto the Bahri Tabuk. Called to supervise the loading operations on the ship, he refused to carry out his duties, invoking conscientious objection. A month later, the local authorities opened a disciplinary case against him.

When the Spanish media broke the news, it mobilized strong public support for Robles and his cause in the Basque Country. A group called La Guerra empieza aquí (“The war begins here”) was formed and has been monitoring Saudi ships arriving in Spain ever since.

“We realised that this was not a one-off event, and that there was a regular route to Bilbao. 2017 was a very busy year. Every month, in some cases every 15 days, a Bahri ship docked, almost always loading bullets from the Expal Systems factory, an affiliate of Maxam, an important Spanish arms company,” Luis Arbide, spokesman for La Guerra empieza aquí, tells Investigate Europe.

Protests in France

However, it is at the French port of Le Havre where two years later, in May 2019, the first coordinated protest between workers from various European ports takes place. The French media outlet Disclose revealed that the Bahri Jazan was on its way from Antwerp to the French port of Le Havre to load eight Ceasar cannons, the “most powerful weapons that France has ever sold to Saudi Arabia”.

The public reaction was immediate. The French NGO ACAT lodged an appeal with the French courts. “Faced with the illegality of these deliveries according to the arms trade treaty, signed and ratified by France, because of the possibility of these weapons being used in Yemen against civilian populations, ACAT filed a summary order to block the delivery of the weapons,” the organisation wrote in a statement.

So the ship continued its journey without docking in France. But the protest spread and the dockers teamed up, reporting the presence of weapons in the holds of Bahri ships. Thus, when the Bahri Yanbu docked at the Eritrea Bridge in the port of Genoa on 20 May 2019, it was greeted by a banner reading “ports closed to weapons, ports open to migrants”. This was a reference to parallel pressure put on it by Interior Minister Salvini to prevent the Sea Watch 3 from disembarking migrants in Lampedusa.

On the side of the treaties

The suspicion in that May 2019 was that the cargo ship came to Genoa to load war material. The freight was known: Four electric generators produced by the Teknel company of Rome, used to power communication, command and control centres for air and land operations. This material has so-called dual use; it is technology for civilian use that can also be used for war operations. “These products,’ Carlo Tombola of “The Weapon Watch” explains, ‘are to all intents and purposes to be considered materials for military use, both because of the type of material and because of the final recipient: the Saudi National Guard, the military corps deployed in the Yemen conflict.

The dockers, supported by pacifist movements, left-wing groups and trade unions, organised a general strike. They did not want to be cogs in the wheel of a conflict, like the one in Yemen.

They  believe they stand on the right side of the argument. The International Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), of which Italy is a member, prohibits international transfers of weapons that could be used to commit war crimes, such as direct attacks against the civilian population.

The European Common Position on Arms Exports also prohibits EU states from authorising arms transfers in such situations.

Italian dockers fighting the arms export from the port of Genoa | Photo: Lorenzo Buzzoni

According to Carlo Tombola of “The Weapon Watch”, the Saudi ships also violate Italian law 185/90, which prohibits transit “to countries in a state of armed conflict”, “to countries in which a total or partial embargo on war supplies has been declared” and “to countries whose governments are responsible for serious violations of international human rights conventions”. Saudi Arabia is at war with Yemen. It “does not respect human rights, and there are restrictions on arms sales”, says Tina Marinari, a spokesperson for Amnesty International Italy.

The Bahri Yanbu was blocked for eight hours by the dockers’ strike. It was unable to carry out loading operations and left the port without generators. “We won the first battle. We have prevented the loading of direct weapons in contexts of blatant violation of human rights,” says dockworker Riccardo Rudino. “Now we have to win the second round. We must prevent even the mere transit of arms to countries in conflict.”  

Protests in Germany

By today the protest has spread to Hamburg, where more than 90 companies are involved in arms production. Every year, 1,000 containers with deadly freight pass through the port of Hamburg. That is  three containers a day containing bombs, tanks, submarine torpedoes, small arms and ammunition.

Martin Dolzer, former member of the Hamburg Parliament for the left-wing party Die Linke, is working with the citizen’s movement “Ziviler Hafen” to make Hamburg an “arms free port”.

“Barhi ships don’t arrive here for the moment. But we have a lot of weapons leaving Germany for Yemen, the Sahel, Mexico, Colombia, countries where human rights are trampled,” he told IE. The ‘People’s Initiative against Arms Exports’ are trying to organise a petition. It must reach 65,000 signatures in order to start a Hamburg-wide referendum to ban arms exports from the city port.

“Until now, dockers that are hired in Hamburg have to sign a clause that they accept also to handle ships that are carrying weapons”, Dolzer says. He thinks the popular movement helps them to be less afraid and act.

Broken unity

In the Italian harbor of Genoa things have become more complicated since 2019. The dockers against arms are facing problems with bigger unions who do not support the strikes. In 2021, the union split. Liguria (the region of which Genoa is the capital) produces weapons. “There is Oto Melara, Fincantieri, Leonardo. This creates problems at political and union level,” explains José Nivoi, a young leader of the autonomous worker collective Calp and one of the promoters of the battle against the ‘warships’.

Video reportage from a visit in the Genoa port and meetings with dockers

“The dockers have always fought for the peace of peoples. We don’t want to get our hands bloody, nor do we want to be accomplices in wars in our working hours”, says José Nivoi “The fact that I go to work to bring food to my daughter, and contribute to the death of other children in another country, is madness to me.”

Other European ports have managed to prevent Bahri ships from docking. But in Genoa, they continue to load and unload and in Sagunto, southern Spain, where the last Bahri stopped in October to load weapons produced in Spain. “I believe that Saudi Arabia is using other ships of small companies, which take the same or similar route as the Bahri. We believe they are doing the same shipments, just in a more discreet way,” says Luis Arbide, spokesman for La guerra empieza aquí. 

“Other countries have government support. We don’t. The arms trade is like the drug trade. There are too many interests behind it, too much profit. We pretend not to see and we find ways of getting around the laws and passing on the responsibility for control and security to the various authorities,” says Alessio Maglione of Calp.

Criminal charges – and defiance

The dockers’ battle also concerns safety at work for themselves, and for the whole city of Genoa. The Bahri ships also carry explosives,” says Josè Nivoi. “We all still have in mind what happened in Lebanon. Genoa and its port are intertwined. An explosion in the port would cause the destruction of a large part of the city and the death of thousands of people”.

In March 2021, five dockers of the Calp collective were charged for criminal conspiracy. A Italian police department specialized on terrorism, claims that the dockers have exploited anti-fascist activity to commit crimes, ranging from dangerous throwing of things to dangerous ignitions and explosions. The charges also involve the boycott campaign and protests against Bahri ships. “They woke us up at five in the morning, entered our homes, confiscated our phones and computers. They treated us like thugs. When I saw the names of my companions on the list of people under investigation, I was afraid. I thought, ‘We won’t get out of here'”, Riccardo Rudino told IE. The process is still pending. But the dockers are not giving up. “I don’t regret what I did. I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” says Riccardo, and with him the Calp guys. They are organising a demonstration for 31 March, “in solidarity with the Ukrainian and Russian people, and in defence of the principle that Italy repudiates war and refrains from any supply and military support to the warring parties.”

Bahri has not come back to questions of Investigate Europe by the time of publication.