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After Egypt and Syria, there's never been a worse time to host an arms fair

Next week London hosts the world’s largest arms fair, the "Defence Security Equipment International" (DSEi) exhibition, organised with the help of the British government and part-subsidised by the UK taxpayer.

Military hardware on show at the 2009 DSEi exhibition. Photo: Getty

Events over the past month have dramatically illustrated the true nature of military power in the world today: not, for the most part, a means of self-defence, but a tool of internal repression and external power projection.

In Egypt, having toppled the elected president in July, the new military government moved to eradicate the political opposition, arresting its leaders and murdering hundreds of activists during a few days in August. In Syria, the armed forces of a regime with deep roots in the military appear to have used chemical weapons on civilians in rebel-held areas, again killing hundreds. In Western capitals, cruise missile strikes are threatened against Syria for reasons that clearly have nothing to do with self-defence, nothing to do with humanitarian principle (witness the continued, substantive support for the junta in Cairo), and everything to do with a geopolitical game being played with the lives of the Syrian people.

Britain’s place at the heart of global militarism is well established. It is a member of the elite club of nuclear states, spends more on “defence” by proportion of GDP than most developed nations, regularly involves itself in armed conflicts abroad, and holds perhaps 15 per cent of the global market in arms dealing, second only to the United States and ahead of Russia and France. In terms of exports, recent revelations that the UK allowed the sale of chemical precursors to Syria highlight the degree of commercial cynicism at work. But often, as one would expect from an industry largely dependent on the nanny state, political concerns shape the destination of exports. Britain mostly sells weapons to allies such as Saudi Arabia (with whom Margaret Thatcher signed Britain’s largest arms deal) not to strategic opponents like Iran.

Next week, with atrocious timing given recent events in Egypt and Syria, London hosts the world’s largest arms fair, the "Defence Security Equipment International" (DSEi) exhibition, organised with the help of the British government and part-subsidised by the UK taxpayer. One of the participating firms hoping to network and make deals at the event is the Russian State Technologies Corporation  (Rostec), whose arms export wing supplies weapons to the Assad regime. It is not yet known which states the British government has invited to attend this year, but past guests provide an indication. Colonel Gaddafi’s notoriously brutal son Khamis appears to have received a personal invite in 2009, while 2011’s guests included delegations from Bahrain and Egypt. A few months before the 2011 event, Bahrain had violently crushed a broad-based pro-democracy movement with the help of a Saudi-led intervention force, while later that autumn the Egyptian military massacred two dozen civilian protestors in Cairo . Many states have pavilions at DSEi to showcase their wares, including Israel, which boasts that its kit has been battle-tested. Clearly the enemies of democracy and self-determination will once again be out in force at this year’s event.

The mindset of militarism has been reflected in the debate over Syria this past fortnight, with even the most liberal of those advocating direct intervention repeatedly insisting that the choice is between waging war and “doing nothing”. In the Syrian case, it is hard to see how serious attempts at diplomacy and serious provision of humanitarian aid (unlike the wholly inadequate efforts made on both fronts so far) can credibly be classed as inaction. Elsewhere, people wanting to do something to counteract the forces of state violence and repression, in the Middle East and elsewhere, could do worse than get involved in the range of creative anti-DSEi protests planned by campaigners for next week, including a mass action on Sunday by Occupy London, a ‘meet-and-greet’ for arms dealers and protests against government support for the arms industry outside Parliament. These too are “humanitarian interventions”, conducted at the level of civil society, aimed at ending British complicity with violent anti-democratic forces around the world.

David Wearing is researching a PhD on British relations with the Gulf states at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Find him on Twitter as @davidwearing

Tags:Syria