activism human rights

The hypocrisy of Britain’s arms fairs

This week is Defense and Security Equipment International, one of the world’s biggest arms fairs. It’s happening right now in London at the Excel Centre. The British government, through its arms trade promotional wing the DSO, is a key partner.

It goes without saying that countries have a right to defend themselves, and it is worth noting that the exhibition includes medical and disaster relief exhibitors. But there’s no escaping the fact that many of the businesses exhibiting profit from death and destruction, and are not shy about providing arms to oppressive regimes.

  • Many countries host ‘pavilions’ at the show to promote their arms companies. Russia is hosting one this year. Russia, as you will remember, is the main supplier of arms to Syria. All arms exports from Russia go through the national export agency, so it’s no exaggeration to say that those arming Syria are exhibiting at the show.
  • At the last exhibition, two companies were ejected from the show for actively promoting cluster bombs, which are banned by over 100 countries. This only happened after intervention by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas. The same exhibitors, both from Pakistan, are back this year.
  • While DSEi acted to evict those businesses, there is clearly a problem with vetting participating companies. At the same show, delegates from Amnesty International picked up brochures for illegal torture equipment.
  • This year’s event includes a huge showcase for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, one of the world’s most controversial military technologies. There’s also a whole day conference on drones and their uses.
  • The government has refused to release a list of official national delegations visiting the show, although it has done in the past. In 2011 delegations were welcomed from Angola, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Gadaffi’s Libya was formally invited in 2009.
  • Prominent among the exhibiting companies are, of course, BAE Systems. When Saudi Arabia lent Bahrain a bunch of armoured cars to suppress protestors in 2011, those were supplied by BAE. When Tony Blair quashed the Serious Fraud Office investigation into jet sales to Saudi Arabia, that was BAE too. The company is currently negotiating the sale of war planes to Bahrain, with a little help from David Cameron.

It’s easy to make excuses for Britain’s arms trade – British jobs and growth is the government’s usual favourite. But the underlying problem is this: again and again, Britain is on the wrong side of the fight for justice and freedom. Libyan protestors were chased down the streets by British armoured cars, the tear gas canisters falling on Egyptian revolutionaries targetted read ‘Made in Britain’. In time, popular revolutions are likely in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia too, and we’ll be on the wrong side of those as well. For all our talk about human rights, through our arms industry we are a global oppressor.

On the one hand, we have our politicians wringing their hands over Syria. On the other, the companies selling arms to Syria are welcome to tout their wares at a government sponsored event. This is not ok, and the Occupy protestors, Quaker pacifists and arms trade campaigners making their presence felt at DSEi are absolutely right.

As CAAT director Kaye Stearman wrote in the Guardian last week, this should be the last DSEi. It should certainly be the last with the support of the government. The DSO, with its 180 staff whose sole job is to bang the drum for Britain’s arms dealers, should be wound up. David Cameron should stop taking arms company CEOs with him on foreign business delegations. And if we wanted to send a message to Russia about their support for Syria, the country’s delegates and exhibitors should be barred from any defence and security events on British soil.

Tellingly, there are visitors from Bahrain among the protestors outside DSEi. Here’s former Bahraini MP Jalal Fairooz: “Over the past week three major human groups, including Amnesty International, have issued a very strong urging for the UK government and other foreign governments to stop supporting the dictator and try to enforce respect of human rights,” he warns. “But unfortunately the money and petrodollars talk louder than principles in the West.”

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