With the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack in Syria still fresh in the minds of the international community, different kinds of arms and the states that have access them are, for the moment at least, being hotly debated.
This has helped shine a light on London’s Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) annual arms fair – the world’s largest – held from 10 to 13 September.
The kick back against DSEI has included everything from Twitter hashtags, to blockading the access roads to London’s Excel Centre, to people gluing themselves to the offices of British arms company Lockheed Martin.‘The protests are spreading the word and building the movement against the fair,’ explains Sarah Reader, who has taken part in the week-long action against DSEI. ‘But they’re also grounded in people wanting to directly stop the fair.’
Resistance has stepped up this year. Previously dominated by peace and anti-military campaigners, 2013 has seen the arrival of groups like Occupy London and groups from Turkey and Bahrain. Reader attributes the global reach of this movement not simply to Syria but to years of hypocrisy among the political elite. ‘The weapons being displayed at the arms fair are being used against civilians in many countries. There is a direct link between the weapons exhibited at DSEI and the ones used in current conflicts,’ she says.
DSEI’s invite list includes countries such as Algeria, Bahrain, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, whose governments have been involved in human rights controversies of the past or present. Britain’s condemnation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria has drawn criticism of transactions with other states with the potential to abuse their own people.
Green MP Caroline Lucas successfully got two companies kicked out of the fair for promoting weapons that could be used in torture. The companies were promoting handheld projectile electric shock weapons, weighted leg cuffs and stun batons.
On the other side of the political spectrum, British politicians have tried to defend DSEI. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson told the Huffington Post: ‘Insofar as it is necessary for governments and authorities to be properly equipped against those who mean them and their people harm, it is only sensible to have legal weapons.’
But what makes a weapon legal? Does it mean proper procedures have been followed in the purchasing of that equipment, or is it because the arms have been purchased from, and under, a member of the UN Security Council? Reader describes the mayor’s comments as ‘completely ridiculous’. ‘On the one hand they [the British government] come out in favour of movements for democracy, and at the same time David Cameron goes on a trade delegation to the Middle East to flog weapons. ‘Any argument where the government is trying to defend what it is doing in supporting the arms fair is hypocritical.’
Protests have thrown Britain’s willingness to tool up repressive governments across the globe into sharp relief.