DSEI 2017: Liam Fox defends UK's lucrative weapon exports as world's biggest arms fair opens in London

More than 100 protesters arrested while demonstrating against controversial event 

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Tuesday 12 September 2017 16:52 BST
A group from the Botswana military watch as a member of the SAAB team explains their latest rocket-propelled weapons at the DSEI arms fair on 12 September
A group from the Botswana military watch as a member of the SAAB team explains their latest rocket-propelled weapons at the DSEI arms fair on 12 September

A cabinet minister has defended Britain’s lucrative weapons export industry as the world’s biggest arms fair opens in London.

More than 100 protesters have already been arrested while demonstrating against the controversial Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) event.

A record number of 1,600 exhibitors from 54 countries are selling their wares at the four-day fair, which expects to attract 36,000 visitors and 2,500 international delegations.

Activists attempted to blockade preparations for DSEI, with 102 people so far arrested for offences including obstructing the highway while attempting to stop weapons traders entering the ExCel centre in London’s Docklands.

Campaigners have been lying down in the road, sitting down and forming human chains to stop vehicles accessing the venue, while heckling attendees.

The Government has been accused of double standards for participating in arms control talks in Geneva as the exhibition opens, amid continued criticism over sales to regimes including Saudi Arabia that are accused of perpetrating war crimes using British weapons.

Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, defended the UK’s multibillion-pound arms export industry by claiming that if countries were unable to acquire weapons legally, there would be an eruption of unregulated sales.

He was the first of many senior British Government and military officials to appear at DSEI, giving the keynote address on its opening day.

Police work to remove protesters who blocked an access road to the 2017 Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair by chaining themselves together on 6 September 2017

Dr Fox told delegates the UK had one of the most sophisticated export licensing regimes in the world, designed to ensure that British-made weaponry was not used to endanger international security.

“There are robust safety measures to allow ethical defences exports to flourish, protected by a licensing system to ensure exports are rational and lawful and which guarantees that we do not in the process violate international law, create tensions, promote terrorism or endanger global security,” he added.

"If nations and peoples have an inalienable right to look after their own defence, those of us from advanced economies must remember that if we do not provide countries with means of defending themselves, then we will see a proliferation of uncontrolled and unregulated arms sales free from oversight or inhibitions.

"To allow such a situation to develop would be vastly irresponsible."

His comments came amid fresh calls from campaigners for Britain to end sales to Saudi Arabia, following claims that UK armaments are being used to kill civilians in Yemen as part of the country’s campaign against Houthi rebels.

Oxfam said the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing was driving a worsening humanitarian crisis, seeing thousands of men, women and children killed as Yemen suffers from a “borderline famine”, at the same time as the world’s largest cholera epidemic.

“Yet the deaths, the destruction and the misery seem to count for nothing,” said Sally Copley, Oxfam GB's head of campaigns.

“Since the war began not one licence to export arms to Saudi Arabia has been rejected by the Government.

"When you are witness to the suffering in Yemen it is hard to understand or excuse how the UK Government talks the talk on arms control while it walks the walk of arms sales.

“It helped push through and signed up to an international arms control law, the Arms Trade Treaty, that it intended to stop arms going to repressive regimes but it continues to sell arms to some of the world's worst human rights abusers.”

The call came as more than 100 countries including the UK gathered in Geneva for the third Conference of States Parties of the Arms Trade Treaty.

A new poll showed that 76 per cent of British adults oppose the promotion of military exports to human rights abusers, and more than two thirds specifically against Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt.

The Opinium survey was commissioned by the Campaign Against Arms Trade, which lost a landmark court case attempting to stop Britain’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia earlier this year.

Campaigner Andrew Smith said: “The overwhelming majority of the public oppose arms exports to brutal and oppressive regimes, yet the arms sales keep flowing.

“None of this would be possible without the full support of civil servants and government ministers, who have consistently prioritised arms sales over human rights.”

Save the Children is also among the groups opposing DSEI, with British actor Dominic West has voicing a film highlighting the Government’s role in fuelling the war in Yemen.

Save the Children campaign targets UK's weapons trade

A survey by YouGov for the charity found that more than half of Brits want the UK to suspend the approval of arms sales to countries fighting in the conflict.

The UK has approved £3.8bn of arms licences to Saudi Arabia, the leader of a multinational coalition in Yemen, since the conflict escalated in March 2015.

Saudi-led bombardment is the leading cause of child deaths and injuries according to the United Nations, with more than 4,000 children have been killed or maimed by all sides in the war so far.

Five members of the coalition, including Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, are thought to be among foreign military delegations invited to DSEI by the British Government.

Duncan Reid, the event director of DSEI, described the support for the arms fair received by the UK and key international allies as “unique”.

A spokesman for the Department of International Trade said: “The UK Government takes its defence export responsibilities very seriously and already operates one of the most robust export control regimes in the world.

"We rigorously examine every application on a case-by-case basis against the Consolidated EU and National arms export licensing Criteria.

"The Government undertakes a stringent process of scrutiny and approval before issuing any invitations to foreign governments to attend a major UK defence exhibition like DSEI.

"Respect for human rights is a mandatory consideration in the process and a country would not be invited where that would contradict the UK's international obligations."

Additional reporting by PA

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