London’s biennial arms fair has met with a wave of protest and criticism after opening this morning (Tuesday 8 September). Protestors demonstrated outside the fair before converging outside the central London headquarters of UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), the government unit through which the arms fair is supported and subsidised.
The UK government has invited representatives of regimes including Libya and Saudi Arabia to attend the arms fair, known formally as Defence Systems and Equipment International (DSEi). DSEi is one of the largest arms fairs in the world.
Supporters of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) staged a non-violent demonstration outside the fair at the Excel Centre in Docklands, before boarding campaign buses to travel to UKTI’s offices in central London.
The owners of the arms fair, Clarion Events, defended the event on the grounds that it is legal and supported by the UK government. DSEi spokesperson Paul Beaver told the BBC that people attending the arms fair will be “going about their lawful business”.
“It is legal to invite human rights abusers, such as Saudi Arabia, to shop for weapons” said CAAT’s Sarah Waldron in a passionate speech outside the Excel Centre, “It is legal to use taxpayers’ money to allow this to happen”.
She urged the public to pressurise the government for change. In particular, CAAT is calling for the closure of UKTI’s arms promotion wing, the Defence and Security Organisation (DSO).
UKTI, which forms part of Peter Mandelson’s Department for Business, has been heavily criticised for devoting more staff to promoting arms exports than to all civil sectors combined, even though arms make up less than two per cent of UK exports.
“Sixty-nine years ago, on this very spot, Londoners were waking up to the first major bombing raid of the blitz,” said Waldron, “Four hundred and thirty-six Londoners died; 1,600 were injured. Now here we are, 69 years later, at the heart of the global arms trade”.
Outside UKTI’s offices in Victoria, the campaigners received a positive response from passers-by and were able to hand in a petition with over 2,000 signatures. CAAT’s spokesperson Kaye Stearman said “It’s wonderful to see so many people from so many different backgrounds turn up to take the message directly to UKTI”.
Other demonstrations and protests are expected to take place throughout the week before DSEi closes on Friday (11 September).
Christian activist Chris Cole was arrested yesterday (7 September) while protesting against preparations for the fair. Yesterday evening saw a silent multifaith vigil by the steps of the Excel Centre.
Members of the group Disarm DSEi, which is independent of CAAT, are expected to take direct action against banks and other companies which invest in the arms trade.
Christians appear to be well represented in this week’s demonstrations. “It’s important to protest against these things because the arms trade makes wars and killings possible,” said Anna Blomgren, who recently joined London’s Catholic Worker community, “It’s important not only to say that we want peace but to protest against what makes war possible”.
Peace activist Dan Viesnik is depriving himself of food for five days while protesting outside the offices of companies and government departments involved in the arms trade. He will not eat until the arms fair finishes at the end of the week.
“This is my way of showing my indignation and despair at the world’s largest arms fair taking place yet again in my city,” he told Ekklesia, “This is a famine to highlight not only the suffering that results from the arms trade but also that the money the government spends on arms isn’t spent on bringing people out of poverty and meeting their basic needs.”
Clarion Events bought DSEi last year, after the previous owners, Reed Elsevier responded to public pressure by withdrawing from the arms trade. Clarion have faced a backlash from exhibitors and customers at their better known events, such as the Baby Show.
For more information on this week’s protests, see http://www.caat.org.uk/issues/ukti/dsei/joinus.php .