The Tory government is quietly sponsoring the world's largest arms fair

Exports to despots and dictatorships around the world have doubled since 2015. 

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Recent public polling demonstrated that general public opinion, unsurprisingly, is against the sale of arms trade to despotic regimes. A survey in early 2017 showed that 71 per cent of adults surveyed in the UK were opposed to the sales of arms to countries with poor human rights records. In the snap general election, Labour, Scottish National Party, the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru and the Greens all ran on manifestos that opposed the sales of arms to Saudi Arabia. 

Yet the Conservative government will be playing host to the worlds largest arms fair, the Defence and Security Equipment International Exhibition, taking place at the ExceL conference centre in the Docklands, East London, this week.  Arguably a dubious honour, the British government is set to roll out DSEI’s red carpet to the world's most renowned weapons manufacturers.

DSEI bills itself as "the world leading event that brings together the global defence and security sector to innovate and share knowledge". Equipment on display includes advanced drones, amphibious craft and armoured vehicles, surveillance tools, robotics and body armour equipment. There will be seminars, and helpful categorisations of which weapons are fit for air, land or sea. Keynote speakers include Michael Fallon, the secretary of state for defence, and security minister Ben Wallace.

Journalists reporting on the exhibition were blocked from taking photos of which delegations were at which stands. Privacy and competition concerns mean that details of specific equipment or technology are not publicly available. Outside, protestors have left signs with slogans such as “war criminals are not welcome here” and “children die, you profit”. 

Attending this macabre event will be guests specially invited by the government’s Defence and Security Organisation (DSO). They will represent regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and the Philippines. All of these countries also occupy spots on the Foreign Office's human rights list of concern. 

This kind of hypocrisy on the side of the British state is hardly new. Since the 2015 general election, UK arms manufacturers have exported over £5bn worth of weapons to regimes which the UK government itself has condemned. Even excluding Saudi Arabia, the largest buyer of British arms, exports to despots and dictatorships around the world have doubled under the Tory government.

Concern about the future of Britain as a world leader after it leaves the European Union is likely the driving force behind this activity. In the UK, the defence industry employs more than 55,000 people (the DSO employs around 130 civil servants). Liam Fox's first official speech in post as international trade secretary post-Brexit was made in the United Arab Emirates, where British cyber surveillance technology has enabled the government to crack down on protestors. 

Typical Tories, critics may sneer. But Andrew Smith of the Campaign Against Arms Trade says Britain's enthusiasm for the arms trade is more about an institutional tendency than party politics - and such consistency does not go unnoticed by Britain's despotic customers. 

“The government has always been more than happy to put arms exports above human rights, which sends a clear message of British endorsement for those regimes,” he says. “Britain has been engaging with Saudi Arabia for at least 40 years, but it’s still a regime that beheads teenagers.”

Britain has exported weaponry to the tune of £3.6bn to the Saudi Arabian regime since March 2015, which has used those weapons to wage war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, where a civil war is leading to three million displaced, and outbreaks of famine and cholera. A legal opinion for Amnesty International found that the UK government's decision to allow the sales put it in breach of its UN Arms Trade Treaty obligations. The government has failed to offer any actual justifications or amendments for its complicity in slaughtering innocent civilians other than a measly aid package of £139m to Yemen.  

When it comes to arms sales, government matters. “Ultimately, the arms companies are responsible for the production of those weapons,” says Smith. “But without Theresa May and her colleagues, it wouldn’t be possible at the end of the day.”

Despite the party's current opposition to aspects of the arms sales, previous Labour governments engaged with Saudi Arabia, and former Prime Minister Tony Blair even halted an investigation into corruption there in 2006. For all his anti-war record, would a Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn be any different? 

So far, Corbyn has kept up his criticism, at least on Saudi Arabia. Ahead of his speech at the annual Trade Union Congress conference in Brighton this week, the Labour leader re-emphasised the importance of halting arms sales to Saudi Arabia, even though workers at firms such as BAE Systems could be severely impacted.

His comments came during a week of co-ordinated action against DSEI. More than a hundred activists were arrested before the doors had even opened. Protests ranged from lock-ons, where individuals put their arms in concrete tubes, and lie on the ground in front of weapons trucks, to a group of Quakers abseiling off a bridge.

Campaigners are hopeful that if more of the public understood how significant the British arms trade is, there would be more opposition. Bob*, an activist from the Manchester-Palestine solidarity group, spoke to the truck drivers, carpenters and electricians responsible for the set-up of DSEI at a local pub. He says that they’re not always aware of what they’re transporting and are often surprised when he speaks to them about the scale of devastation that the British government’s arms trade is enabling. 

The opposition seems to be gathering pace. “Even two years ago, the police were much more relaxed. Now it’s gotten so much bigger, they’ve brought in these special lock-on teams, so we’re making some difference,” says Bob.

Media coverage of the protests has increased, thanks to some high profile backers. The street artist Banksy donated his first new piece in a year to the Art the Arms Fair exhibition running alongside DSEI, supported by CAAT and other groups involved in the direct action last week. 

Could media attention, consistent opposition from Labour and greater public attention mark a shift in policy? As Smith points out: “The government could end the arms sales tomorrow if it wanted to - all it would take is the political will to do it.”

*Name has been changed

Sanjana Varghese was previously a Wellcome scholar at the New Statesman. She writes about science and technology.