Some of the world’s largest arms manufacturers, including the company that builds America and Britain’s lethal drone fleet, are attending a conference next month in a building closely tied to the Church of England, The Independent can disclose.
Christian groups and arms campaigners have expressed outrage that the Church House Conference Centre in Westminster is welcoming a large group of weapon makers including General Atomics, the American conglomerate that builds the Predator and Reaper drones.
The conference centre is no longer owned by the Church and is run by a private company. But it does lie within the same building that serves as the Church of England’s administration headquarters and includes significant Anglican bodies such as the Archbishop’s Council, the Church Commissioners and the C of E Pensions Board. The conference building has also been used by the Church as the venue for its annual winter General Synod over the last four decades.
The conference is being hosted by the influential security think-tank the Royal United Services Institute and is billed as an opportunity for defence chiefs, academics and arms manufacturers from around the world to discuss “the future of air power” – a subject in which drone technology is likely to feature prominently.
Among those who have been asked to speak include the defence secretary Phillip Hammond, General Knud Bartels, the chairman of Nato’s military committee, Brigadier General Jon Norman, America’s top air chief in Europe, Major General Micael Byden, the head of Sweden’s air force and a string of British military chiefs including Vice Admiral Alan Richards, the chief of Defence Intelligence.
The BBC’s world news editor Jon Williams is also listed on the event programme as a keynote speaker. Last year the Beeb’s security correspondent Frank Gardner pulled out of a similar conference following protests.
But it is the inclusion of a number of weapon manufacturers as sponsors that has most upset campaign groups, particularly those who are motivated by their Christian faith to speak out against the arms trade.
So-called “networking events” have been sponsored by General Atomics, American defence giant Lockheed Martin and MBDA, a missile manufacture which is owned by British, French and Italian defence conglomerates. Other exhibitors and sponsors include EADS, a pan-European defence company, Boeing, Italian defence giant Finmeccanica and ADS, the trade body which represent the British defence industry.
Symon Hill from the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, called the conference “repugnant”.
“Large numbers of Christians are campaigning against the arms trade, particularly the use of drones, and calling for new and fairer forms of economics and security,” he said. “Despite this, Church House is allowing its facilities to be used for an event that is as morally repugnant as a conference for sex traffickers or drug dealers.”
Anne-Marie O'Reilly, from Campaign Against Arms Trade said: “It is deeply concerning that Church House has agreed to host an arms conference. The Church of England has committed to exclude weapons manufacturers from its investments; we hope it will act to ensure a venue so closely associated with it does not help confer a veneer of legitimacy on that same industry. ”
The growing use of drones to monitor and kill on the battlefield has caused alarm among many church members both within the laity and clergy. Earlier this month the Bishop of Wolverhampton Rt Revd Clive Gregory led a protest outside a West Midlands based company involved in the development of drone technology. He described the use of drones in battle as ‘reducing death to the level of a computer game’.
The Church of England insists it is not able to dictate who can exhibit in the conference centre. A spokesperson told The Independent that the Church House complex – which is made up of a string of buildings off Great Smith Street in central London – is run by a charitable organisation known as the Corporation of the Church House. The Church of England pays rent to the corporation to lease the buildings whilst the conference centre is a wholly owned subsidiary which raises income to help offset the running costs of the campus.
“Church House is used as a conference venue by many bodies from National Government to think tanks to the General Synod,” said Rev Arun Arora. “The RUSI is an independent think tank with long expertise and experience on issues involving security and defence. To suggest that the choice of Church House as a conference venue by RUSI somehow implicates the Church of England in supporting arms sales is at best nonsensical and at worst insulting.”
A spokeswoman from the Church House Conference Centre defended its decision to host the gathering and said it had a “longstanding relationship with the UK’s armed forces.”
She added: “The view we have taken is that there is a big difference between a conference held by a highly respected organisation such as RUSI and what you describe as an “arms fair”. Church House Conference Centre takes its ethical policy most seriously and considers all potential clients before taking bookings.”