UK ministers have invited the government of Bahrain to send a delegation to the London arms fair, which starts today (13 September). The Bahraini regime has turned its weapons on peaceful protestors in recent months.
The news provoked anger but little surprise among peace and human rights campaigners when the list of invitations was published yesterday. Ministers had resisted calls from the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) to publish the list sooner, waiting until the eve of the arms fair, which is taking place at London's Excel Centre.
In total, 63 countries have been invited to attend the event, known formally as Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEi). Of these, fourteen are listed as “authoritarian regimes” by the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Libya is not on the list, although representatives of the Gaddafi regime were invited to the last DSEi, in 2009. The Sunday Telegraph revealed at the weekend that the UK government had been encouraging Gaddafi's government to buy sniper rifles from UK-based companies only weeks before the Libyan uprising began.
DSEi is owned by Clarion Events, and run with funding and political support from the UK government. It is promoted by both the Ministry of Defence and UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), a unit of Vince Cable's Department for Business.
Protests are already underway against DSEi. Yesterday evening, around 150 people gathered for a silent multifaith vigil at the steps of the Excel Centre. As the fair opens today, it is expected to be greeted by a range of demonstrations, including lawful rallies, nonviolent civil disobedience, street theatre, prayer vigils and a mass lobby of MPs.
CAAT highlighted the invitations to oppressive regimes, and countries involved in violent conflict, as evidence of the reality of DSEi.
The UK government has insisted that the presence of a country's representatives at DSEi does not indicate that an export licence will necessarily be issued for arms sales to the country concerned.
Symon Hill, associate director of the beliefs and values thinktank Ekklesia said, “DSEi gives governments the chance to network with arms dealers from around the world. It would be naïve to think that the Bahraini regime can only benefit from DSEi if it is issued with a UK arms export licence.
“David Cameron's words about democracy in the Middle East and north Africa are now ringing hollow to people in Britain and beyond. He has serious questions to answer."