A Russian arms company accused of sending helicopters to the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad was among the exhibitors selling weaponry at Britain’s Farnborough Airshow as the event opened today, prompting vociferous protests from human rights activists.
Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state-run arms export agency which has been described as “a firm that has enabled mass atrocities in Syria” by US Republican Senator John Cornyn, has faced calls for an embargo on sales and operations in the UK and the US, in light of its continued dealings with a dictatorship whose forces have killed thousands of civilians.
Combat aircraft and airborne munitions make up at least 40 percent of Rosoboronexport’s total exports according to its website, and its sales exhibition at Farnborough International Air Show in Hampshire comes just weeks after Russia attempted to send a shipment of helicopters to Syria.
That was only prevented when the MV Alaed, the vessel containing the aircraft, was forced to return to dock after its British insurer withdrew its cover, as rumours circulated that Prime Minister David Cameron was even considering sending the Royal Navy to stop the ship.
Though the biennial airshow at Farnborough has long been popular with the public for its spectacular closing weekend air displays, often featuring the Red Arrows alongside cutting-edge military jets from around the world, its focus in the preceding week is selling military and civilian aviation hardware. At the last airshow in 2010, 120,000 trade visitors led to exhibiting companies announcing orders totalling around £30bn.
Among this year’s attendees will be Business Secretary Vince Cable, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, Minister for Defence Equipment Peter Luff and Defence Minister Gerald Howarth.
Sarah Waldron of the Campaign Against Arms Trade protest group told The Independent that Rosoboronexport’s presence at Farnborough was “a stark demonstration of government hypocrisy”.
“William Hague has publicly condemned those who have armed the regime in Syria, but he refuses to act to stop Rosoboronexport displaying its wares at Farnborough International,” she said. “Instead of taking a stand against those supporting atrocities, Government Ministers such as Vince Cable will be schmoozing their own invite list.”
Human Rights Watch joined the calls for action. David Mepham, the organisation’s UK Director, said: “It would be highly damaging and contradictory for the UK government to permit Rosoboronexport - the principal supplier of arms to Syria - to enjoy lavish hospitality and negotiate for fresh business with UK companies at the Farnborough air show.
“The UK should be using all its influence to stop the flow of arms to the Syrian government, including greater pressure on Moscow to end the transfer of Russian arms to Assad’s security forces and through an international arms embargo on Syria.”
Prior to an arms fair in Paris last month at which Rosoboronexport also appeared, Jean-Marie Fardeau, France director at Human Rights Watch, criticised the West for conducting “business as usual with a company arming a government engaged in atrocities against its people.” Meanwhile in the US, Senator Cornyn, along with other members of the Congress, wrote a letter to Defence Secretary Leon Panetta calling for President Barack Obama’s administration to cease its dealings with the company.
Russian officials were today quoted as saying that no new arms contracts would be signed with Syria unless the violence there comes to an end. "While the situation in Syria is unstable, there will be no new deliveries of arms there," Vyacheslav Dzirkaln told journalists at Farnborough, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency.
Yet Russia has maintained its right to sell weapons to Syria under previous contracts – having signed $5.5bn of arms deals with Assad’s regime since 2006, with deals worth an estimated $500m expected to go through this year – on the basis that they are merely defensive systems that could not be used against civilians.
This assertion has been rubbished by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, however. "We have confronted the Russians about stopping their continued arms shipments to Syria. They have, from time to time, said that we shouldn't worry - everything they are shipping is unrelated to their [the Syrian government's] actions internally," Mrs Clinton was quoted as telling a forum in Washington last month. "That's patently untrue."
In a statement the Foreign Office said: “We oppose all arms transfers to the Syrian regime. Those that continue to do so are only helping to perpetuate the continuing cycle of violence… The Foreign Secretary has made clear to Foreign Minister Lavrov his deep concerns about continued Russian arms transfers to the Syrian regime in recent discussions. There are no plans for Ministers to meet representatives of Rosoboronexport at this year’s event.”
It also added: “Farnborough International Air Show is a commercial event run by Farnborough International Ltd. The British Government plays no part in determining which companies are invited to exhibit.”
But Ms Waldron insisted that during Farnborough UK Trade and Industry “invites and hosts military delegations, organises a briefing programme for arms companies, provides space for private meetings, and marshals a cross-government sales team, including government ministers, to help promote arms sales during Farnborough.”
“Farnborough couldn't go ahead without the support and cooperation of the UK government,” she said. “If the government wanted Farnborough to keep the Russians away, they would just have to say so.”
Farnborough said in a statement: “The Farnborough International Airshow is a global aerospace exhibition attracting exhibitors from circa 40 countries. Companies wishing to exhibit at FIA must comply with current English law and the UK’s international undertakings and also adhere to the Exhibition Regulations issued by Farnborough International Limited. All companies participating in the Farnborough International Airshow… have met the above criteria.”
Rosoboronexport was asked to comment but did not respond.
The controversy has even enveloped the Natural History Museum, which is due to host a launch party for the airshow tonight. In an open letter to the west London museum, several distinguished scientists have called on it to cancel the event, which they argue gives “both practical support and a veneer of legitimacy to an industry based on death and destruction”. Campaigners protested outside the museum this afternoon, dressed as dinosaurs.
Responding to the letter, a museum spokesperson said: “The Museum makes parts of its building available for private hire by charities, companies, government bodies and individuals for a wide range of events throughout the year. These private events are not partnerships, sponsorships, and the hirers do not have an association with the Museum beyond the rental of the space.
“Our corporate sponsors and patrons also hold events at the Museum as part of their ongoing relationship with us. Farnborough International Ltd is not a corporate sponsor or patron of the Museum.”
Letter to the Natural History Museum:
We, the undersigned biologists, teachers and others committed to the Natural History Museum (NHM)'s mission of 'promot[ing] the discovery, understanding, responsible use and enjoyment of the natural world', write to protest against the involvement of the arms trade in one of Britain's best-loved public institutions.
The NHM's decision to host a 9 July reception for the Farnborough International arms fair means that arms dealers will be able to enjoy cocktails in the shadow of the Museum's famous Diplodocus.
The last Farnborough International (in 2010) was attended by military delegations from Libya, Bahrain, Algeria, China and Saudi Arabia – all shopping for weapons – and the fair's own organisers describe the reception as the “most important event” during the fair. This year, Rosoboronexport, the main weapons supplier to the Syrian regime, will have a major presence.
Contrary to NHM director Michael Dixon's claim that this is “not an expression of support or endorsement from the Museum”, hosting such a reception gives both practical support and a veneer of legitimacy to an industry based on death and destruction.
We urge the NHM to immediately sever its links with the arms trade.
Dr Richard Horton, Editor of The Lancet
Professor Steve Jones, Senior Research Fellow at University College London
Prof Mark Blaxter, Professor of Evolutionary Genomics and Curator at The Natural History Collections of the University of Edinburgh
Dr Felicity Mellor of Imperial College London
Dr Gail Davies of University College London
Dr Fabiola Martin, Senior Lecturer in HIV Medicine at the University of York
Alom Shaha, science teacher
Dr Chris Philippidis, physicist
Dr Alan Ingram at the University College London
Dr R. J. Tacon
Dr Sheena Cotter at Queen's University Belfast
Prof. Robert Hinde, CBE, FRS, FBA