DSEI Arms Fair Has Set Up Shop - We Need to Shut It Down
Weapons and warships are not ordinary items that should be perused casually like it’s a supermarket shop
This week the Defence And Security Equipment International arms fair (DSEI), Europe’s largest arms fair, opens its doors again at the Excel Centre. The event hosts arms companies from around the world, selling small arms, missiles, tanks and warships.
It’ll run, ominously, until Friday 13 September. On Sunday, Sadiq Khan wrote to the director of DSEI pushing for the event to get out of London. And too right.
When I first moved to London in September 2013, I had no idea I’d just moved a six-minute drive away from where DSEI was in full swing. Like its ambiguous official title suggests, it’s not an event that makes itself known with a big publicity campaign.
In early Autumn 2015, a friend who was visiting London for work met a group of us for tapas. As I asked him what brought him to town, it transpired that he was in town because his helicopter company was exhibiting at the arms fair. ‘Oh, I’m protesting outside of that,’ I said. Awkward. But it exposed an important tension.
Weapons and warships are not ordinary items that should be perused casually like it’s a supermarket shop. But according to government estimates, the UK’s defence and security export business was worth £12 billion in 2016. So can the jobs created and sustained by the arms trade justify the arms ‘fair’? I don’t think so.
The government says that being careful about who we sell weapons to is ‘rigorous’ and ‘vital’. It says we should uphold our values by taking into account human rights and international law. Yet every two years some of the biggest names in repression and human rights abuses continue to be invited by our government to attend the arms fair.
This year, they’ve invited eight military delegations classified by the UK Foreign Office as human rights priority countries. Amnesty International, barred entry to the ‘exhibition’ last Friday, noted that not one of the 22 major international arms companies it contacted were able to demonstrate they had done adequate human rights due diligence.
The roll call for this year’s arms fair includes VIPs Saudi Arabia and top ‘international partner’ the United Arab Emirates (UAE), that has a national pavilion at the event. A Saudi-led coalition, that features the UAE as a lead partner, is accused of causing the deaths of up to 85,000 young children from starvation in Yemen. Cholera is also rife there. This did not push either nation off the invite list for the arms fair. Neither did judges ruling in June that the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia is unlawful.
The UK has licensed nearly £6.2bn worth of arms exports to Saudi-led coalition since the start of the war in 2015. Britain has earned eight times more from arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen than it spent on aid to help civilians, according to an Oxfam report.
Worryingly, Hong Kong still made the invite list, despite reports that pro-democracy protesters were being hit with tear gas canisters made in Derby. They pulled their delegation last week. The organisers give it a funny name to obfuscate its true purpose: to enable companies to flog arms to governments even when their human rights records are dubious.
Brexit has been taking up all the bandwidth in Parliament, in the news cycles and consequently our news feeds. But we shouldn’t let that distract us and blinker us from other critical issues and events. That journalists like Solomon Hughes, a journalist at the satirical magazine Private Eye, have been banned from attending should worry us. Hughes has attended the ‘exhibition’ on three previous occasions. What have they got to hide this time? If we care about free speech, we should interrogate this decision.
With Parliament prorogued, it’s up to the public to stand in for our dysfunctional state. The organisers of the arms fair should be held to account and their sales scrutinised. Polling suggests that the public is not behind dodgy arms exports.
In 2017, a poll found 76 per cent of UK adults oppose the government’s role in promoting arms exports to countries with poor human rights records. And people are making their opposition to the arms fair known.
Stop the Arms Fair will be protesting by the venue every day this week. The award-winning anti-arms exhibition Art the Arms Fair is running again alongside the arms fair until 13 September. The residents of Newham, East London, including the Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz and Newham Council have organised an alternative peace exhibition.
Their position is clear: they don’t want the arms fair in their borough. The London Mayor, the local mayor and the people have spoken. We shouldn’t be rolling out the red carpet for despots and repressive regimes. It’s time for the arms fair to shut up shop.