A 'die-in' outside the offices of BAE Systems. Photo by Jamie Kelsey-Fry.
There was a moment on Tuesday during the series of actions against the UK’s biennial Defence and Security Systems International (DSEi) exhibition, taking place from 13-16 September, that was so absurd it could have come straight out of a Monty Python sketch.
Anti-arms trade activists had discovered that a gala reception for delegates would be hosted at London’s National Gallery. After a ‘die-in’ (everyone lying around in the throes of mock-death) outside the nearby offices of BAE Systems, activists made their way to the entrances to the Gallery to provide their own reception as delegates arrived.
Some early arrivals had made their way to one of the entrances and quickly climbed the stairs to a tall black door, hoping to get in as soon as they could in order to escape the cries of 'what do you tell your children that you do?' and 'you have blood on your hands!' – all to the soundtrack of explosions blaring from the speakers of a mobile sound system nearby.
But that door just didn’t open. Although the seven tanned and smartly dressed men kept ringing the bell and trying the (ornamental) doorknob, they stood there for a full five minutes, with their backs to an increasingly furious crowd, their necks reddening profusely. It was a surreal scene, those who usually hide behind anonymity were suddenly at close quarters with those who despise their business. Protesters were shouting, ‘Turn around and face us! Explain yourselves!’ but they remained transfixed by their embarrassment.
There was a strong element of faith-based activism on the opening day, including an ‘exorcism’ of the Excel building that houses the exhibition and a mainly Christian led die-in blockade at the Customs House entrance to the building as well as a sit down blockade of the West Gate entrance to the building by the same group. But there were also many other actions across London on this first day of DSEi and these will continue throughout the week.
It seems the growth areas in the arms trade are robotics for land and sea, following on from the ‘success’ of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). Many of the companies are also specializing in intelligence gathering and cyber security. Although the proponents of the industry will say this is all a way of ensuring greater security, the murder of civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan at the hands of UAVs and the tracking and murder of pro-democracy protesters through ‘cyber security’ in many North African and Middle Eastern countries would suggest that the ‘defense and security’ label is wearing rather thin.
Of the 63 delegations invited, 14 were deemed to be authoritarian regimes by human rights groups. This included Bahrain, a nation that has recently been guilty of murdering peaceful pro-democracy protesters.
If that door had never opened and the arms traders had turned to face the crowds, they may have said that their business protects the rights of people to protest in democracies like the UK’s. But that would not tally with those trying to do exactly that in countries like Bahrain and Syria. And make no mistake, much of the cyber ‘security’ technology could also have a frightening impact on freedoms in the West leaving us with the foreboding question: ‘who watches the watchers’?
They would have said that the UK needs this industry, that it is a keystone to economic growth, but exactly the same was said of the slave trade. Ending the arms trade and using that expertise to develop renewables and other green technology instead would benefit the country far more widely and, by default, it would benefit the world to have scientific and engineering skills directed towards saving lives rather than taking lives or controlling them.