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13 September 2007

Arms fair?

Robbie Gillett reports from the protest at the DSEi arms fair and questions why it is less people to

By Robbie Gillett

Military officials and protesters alike were attracted to the Defence Systems Exhibition International arms fair at the Excel Centre in London last Tuesday (11 September).

The numbers of protesters outside were noticeably lower than previous arms exhibitions in 2001, 2003 and 2005. Numbers inside, however remained strong. Up to 25,000 people were expected to attend over the four days that the event was running. Defence officials from countries with questionable human rights records had also been invited, including Libya, Saudi Arabia, China and Indonesia.

After a Critical Mass bike ride of around 50 cyclists starting at Bank in central London, around 150 people gathered outside Europe’s largest exhibition of guns, warships and bombs to voice their opposition to this morally dubious event.

The Space Hijackers, the London-based team of ‘Anarchitects’ brought some much needed humour and irony to the protest crowd outside. Having heavily publicised their intention to arrive at the the arms fair in their own tank, the group found themselves under almost 24 hour police watch from two days prior to the beginning of the exhibition.

Unsurprisingly, on Tuesday morning, the group found themselves (and their tank) subject to a long and time-consuming police search. Cunningly, however, this first tank acted as a decoy to tie up police attention, allowing the group to manoeuvre a second tank into position outside the arms fair near Canning Town.

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As the tank was being auctioned off to a highest bidder in a parody of the actual arms fair, I was still left wondering why the numbers of demonstrators were significantly lower than previous occasions?

One reason, I speculated, was that since the British ‘defence’ industry has had its wings clipped recently, the protest community felt less inclined to take to the streets on the issue.

For example the recent announcement that the Defence Exports Services Organisation (DESO), the government’s marketing department for the arms industry, was closing down.

And in June, the publishing company Reed announced that 2007 would be the last year it hosted the arms fair. Reed, which publishes medical journals, had received numerous complaints from doctors over its involvement in this deadly industry. Similarly, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and other organizations had also disinvested from the company.

Could it be that people felt the arms fair in London was on its way out, and weren’t so inclined to attend the protests this year?

Whether or not this is the case, there is still little room for complacency on this issue. Whilst praise is due for groups such as Campaign Against the Arms Trade for their long-running opposition, we should note that whilst DESO may no longer have a seat at the heart of government, its activities have been moved to UK Trade and Investment. They are responsible for promoting all UK exports, 2% of which are comprised of arms sales. The corporate profits from Iraq and Afghanistan continue to roll in, and the military-industrial complex that US President Eisenhower warned us of back in 1961 shows no sign of abating.

The UK should not be hosting this event in their capital city or anywhere. Responses such as “Countries have the right to defend themselves,” are misleading. I think it’s clear the ‘defence’ industry fuels conflict around the world, by providing the apparatus required for confrontation to spill over into conflict and war.

“If we didn’t sell them, someone else would,” is often a secondary response, but this is equally vacuous in absolving ourselves of moral responsibility.

Hopefully, DSEi will not return in two years time, but if it does, we must not forget that this is a long-running battle that needs to be maintained. Public protest needs to be bigger, louder and stronger, and accompanied by student campaigns to force universities to disinvest from the arms industry (see Tim Street’s blog).

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