Roll up! Roll up! Ballistic missiles and hand grenades! Drones, helicopters and warships! Rocket launchers, tanks and assault rifles! Welcome to the biennial London Arms Fair! Showing now until 15th September at the Excel Centre in Docklands, the Defence Systems and Equipment International (DSEI) – “a world-leading event that brings together the defence and security sector to innovate and share knowledge” – presents one of the world’s biggest arms bazaars, displaying the latest high-tech arms and surveillance technology, crowd control and weaponry. This year the exhibition is split into five key zones: air, land, security and joint, all showcasing the latest equipment and systems. DSEI is organised by Clarion Events, with extensive cooperation from the British government.
Military personnel, politicians, private defence contractors and consultants mingle as they shop. Countries accused of war crimes and human rights abuses, Algeria, Angola, Colombia, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Pakistan, Turkey, the UAE, and Ukraine are among the invited. Although not an official guest, the Israeli arms industry has special pavilions at the venue, where over 34,000 visitors are expected to view the latest in killing weaponry for sale, exhibited by more than 1,600 arms companies, including the US and UK giants Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon and BAE Systems.
With authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and Azerbaijan among the official UK government guests in attendance, this year’s keynote speakers at the opening day conference included British Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox and many of the top brass in the UK military establishment. Fox said that overseas governments had an inaliable right to defend themselves and that if they could not buy the equipment they required from developed countries with effective controls, like the UK, they would look elsewhere. Last year Britain’s arms export industry turned over 3 billion pounds.
Andrew Smith, a spokesman from the activist group Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) said: “DSEI is one of the biggest arms fairs in the world. It exists purely to maximise arms sales. Prime Minister Theresa May and her colleagues may talk about promoting human rights but DSEI could not happen without the full support of government. A lot of the regimes in attendance have been linked to terrible human rights abuses, and events like DSEI only make them more likely in future. It is vitally important to spread as much awareness as possible of this terrible arms fair taking place. ”
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s has said that he was opposed to London being used as a market place for countries that contribute to human rights abuses, but that he had no powers to stop it. A group called Stop the Arms Fair https://www.stopthearmsfair.org.uk/ had other ideas. They organised a week of action to halt the fair before it started, and to draw attention to an event that prefers to keep a low public profile.
Growing numbers of protesters gathered and set up camp with tents on the grass outside the Excel exhibition centre’s entrance last Monday, and in an attempt to disrupt and delay the lorries arriving with equipment to set up the show, began to blockade the way by dancing, singing, theatre, clowning, playing football, sitting or lying in the road, while surrounded by large numbers of police in bright yellow jackets, some on horses. Over 100 protestors were arrested during the week, mostly charged with obstruction.
Banksy, the elusive street artist, has donated a new simple but powerful work to ‘Arts the Arms Fair’, an exhibition running along with the protest. ‘Civilian Drone Attack’, shows the horrified stick figure of a child next to a burning building. Three drones circle above. The piece will be auctioned off on Friday and proceeds donated to CAAT. Ahmed Jahaf, a Yemeni artist who has submitted 10 works to the exhibition, said: “British, American and people of other countries who sell their bombs to Saudi Arabia and UAE must know that we in Yemen regard their governments as partners in the massacres taking place.” (The UK has sold 3.6 million pounds of arms to Saudia Arabia since the conflict with Yemen began.)
Organiser Sam Walton said “Less than 10 per cent of Londoners even know the arms fair exists. They [DSEI] want to stay in the shadows and what Art the Arms Fair is about is making this the most talked-about arms fair, so people can make their own judgements. One way to do that is through art.”
(Incidentally, this year the biennial London Arms Fair coincides with three important anniversaries in the history of weapons and warfare. 150 years ago in 1867 dynamite was invented by Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel. 60 years ago in 1957 the Russians launched the first intercontinental ballistic missile. And 40 years ago today in 1977 the neutron bomb, which kills people but leaves buildings intact, was developed in the USA. Now there’s a bargain!)