The London arms fair has opened to a storm of controversy, with protests outside Parliament, the offices of arms companies and at the gates to the event itself. The National Gallery also faced protests after it hosted an evening reception for visitors to the arms fair.
The event opened a day after the UK government admitted that the regimes of Bahrain, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam had been invited to send delegations to the fair, known formally as Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEi).
DSEi is owned by Clarion Events and organised with political and financial support from the UK government, via Liam Fox's Ministry of Defence and Vince Cable's Department for Business. It is taking place until Friday (16 September) at the Excel Centre in London's Docklands.
Hundreds of people gathered to protest outside Parliament this morning as Green MP Caroline Lucas put down an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons opposing the arms fair.
Arms dealers travelling to the fair on the Docklands Light Railway were greeted by nonviolent protestors who prayed, sang hymns and sought to engage them in conversation. Yesterday evening, around 150 people had gathered outside the Excel Centre in a multifaith silent vigil.
The main entrances to the arms fair was blocked by around thirty protestors this afternoon, causing traffic to the event to be diverted. The campaigners were removed by police. A priest who was praying in the gateway was one of the last to leave.
The London offices of the multinational arms firm BAE Systems faced a street protest and “die-in” in the afternoon. Two Christian NGOs – the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Speak Network - staged street theatre outside the London offices of US-based company General Atomics, who sell drones to the UK government.
A number of protestors were forcibly removed from the National Gallery by police after peacefully refusing to leave prior to the arms dealers' reception. Campaigners outside waved banners as rows of police escorted the arms dealers to the door.
Many of the protests were organised by members of the Stop the Arms Fair coalition. The twenty groups affiliated to it include the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), Disarm DSEi, faith groups and local residents' organisations.
Inside the arms fair, Defence Secretary Liam Fox gave a speech urging an increase in arms exports from the UK.
But Amy Hailwood of the Fellowship of Reconciliation said that many arms were being made, bought and sold with almost no parliamentary scrutiny.
She said that drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, have caused a high number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She argued that they encourage a “Playstation mentality” among operators, because they are flown by “pilots” many thousands of miles away from those they are killing and wounding.
“There needs to be full, serious and urgent public and parliamentary debate about the destructive rise of armed drones before any further political and financial investment is made by the UK government,” said Hailwood.
The government is now under growing pressure to explain the presence of regimes such as Bahrain at the arms fair, only months after ministers revoked arms export licences to the country following the killing of peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators.
More protests are expected to take place against the arms fair throughout the week.