What is the DSEI arms fair taking place in London this week and why is it so controversial?

Police arrest more than 100 protesters seeking to block access to London's ExCel centre ahead of the start of the biennial event

Rachel Roberts
Thursday 14 September 2017 12:22 BST
The DSEI arms fair attracts a large number of protesters and an accompanying strong police presence
The DSEI arms fair attracts a large number of protesters and an accompanying strong police presence (Getty)

More than 100 people have so far been arrested at protests outside the controversial DSEI arms fair as it prepares to open its doors at the Excel centre in London’s Docklands.

Here we answer your questions about the controversial event.

What is DSEI

Defence and Security Equipment International is billed as the world’s largest arms fair, allowing buyers and sellers of arms to network and make preliminary deals.

Although no actual trade takes place, this year’s four-day event will be attended by around 34,000 people from the world’s arms companies, militaries and government representatives.

Who organises it?

Evolving from the old British Army and Navy equipment shows, it happens with the UK Government’s full backing every two years in September. In a startling coincidence, the first ever DSEI fair opened its doors on the same day of the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Centre, 16 years ago.

The huge commercial event is co-organised by the Government’s Defence and Security Organisation (DSO), which exists to help arms companies sell their equipment around the world.

This year, the Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, and Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for International Trade, will give key note speeches alongside the chiefs of staff of the UK's armed forces.

Why does the Government support it?

The organisers claim the event itself brings £300m into the UK economy, while the defence industry as a whole employs around 300,000 people directly and indirectly and is said to generate £35bn annually for the UK economy.

However, campaigners dispute the legitimacy of these figures and say that enabling war is costly, creating the need for huge foreign aid budgets and refugee crises.

Opposition politicians have spoken out against DSEI, including the Green Party and a number of Labour MPs. This year, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said he was opposed to the fair taking place – in contrast to his predecessor, Boris Johnson, who backed the event, calling it a “sensible” way to sell arms to foreign governments.

Clarion Events organises DSEI since acquiring the highly lucrative event in 2008. Previous owner Reed Elsevier announced it would sell DSEI, apparently bowing to pressure from campaign groups, saying the fair was “no longer compatible with its position”.

Clarion, which also runs The Baby Show, The Travel Show and The Spirit of Christmas, has since gone on to acquire six more arms shows.

What companies will be selling their weapons?

This year, around 1,500 exhibitors will be present including most of the world’s biggest providers of arms with companies such as Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, Raytheon, Northrop Gumman and General Dynamics exhibiting their wares.

On show this week will be the latest high-tech surveillance technology, crowd control weaponry, drones, helicopters and warships. Experts including Oliver Sprague of Amnesty International have previously testified in court that they have witnessed illegal activity taking place at the fair – such as the brokering of deals for banned weapons. Mr Sprague was barred from entering the fair in 2015.

Why is it so controversial?

DSEI has been accused several times over the years of facilitating the sale of banned equipment including weapons designed for torture and cluster munitions. In 2013, two companies were ejected from the fair after Green Party MP and co-leader Caroline Lucas said in Parliament they were promoting illegal handheld projectile electric shock weapons, weighted leg cuffs and stun batons.

The Government and Clarion have been accused by campaign groups including Campaign Against the Arms Trade, Amnesty International and Oxfam, of “rolling out the red carpet” to a host of despotic regimes over the years, inviting delegates from some of the worst human rights abusers in the world to attend the DSEI fair – including Saudi Arabia, Libya, Bahrain, Pakistan, Israel and Turkey.

This year, 56 countries have received official invitations, including five regimes which are currently engaged in conflict – Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, Turkey and Pakistan.

Nine of the invited countries are considered to have authoritarian regimes and six are identified by the UK Government as being “human rights priority countries”.

Saudi Arabia has repeatedly been accused of breaching international human rights law since it became involved in the Yemen civil war in 2015. An estimated 13,000 people have been killed in the conflict – including children. The Saudis have denied targeting civilians and say such deaths are collateral damage.

Critics of the arms trade this week pointed out the “double standards” of the £139m the British Government has earmarked for aid to the Yemeni people this year, while on the other hand it has sold £3.6bn worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since the air strikes against Yemen began.

Sally Copley, Oxfam’s head of campaigns and policy in the UK, said: “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.”

This year, Israel and Jordan are not on the list of invited delegates, but both have confirmed the presence of a national pavilion, meaning they will have representation at DSEI.

Who will be protesting against the fair?

The fair inevitably attracts a large number of protesters, including religious and political groups, with an accompanying strong police presence. In past years it has cost over £1m in policing, with 2,245 officers deployed each day. The Met says that no money toward the policing comes from the exhibition because the protests take place outside.

Eight protesters arrested in 2015 for either locking onto or lying down in front of vehicles carrying weapons into the event were found not guilty of obstructing the public highway after they successfully used the unusual offence that they were trying to prevent more serious crimes.

Following a week-long trial at Stratford Magistrates’ Court, District Judge Angus Hamilton accepted that the peaceful protesters had been trying to prevent war crimes.

The judge found: “There is clear, credible and largely unchallenged evidence from the expert witnesses of wrongdoing at DSEI and compelling evidence that it took place in 2015.

“It was not appropriately investigated by the authorities. This could be inferred from the responses of the police officers, that they did not take the defendants’ allegations seriously.”

The Crown Prosecution Service appealed the judge’s decision, however, and in July this year, the High Court overturned the acquittal – but ruled that in the interests of justice, none of the eight activists would be retried or face costs.

Similar trials could take place as the police confirmed that 102 people had been arrested by Sunday evening for a range of offences, many for obstructing the public highway.

DSEI's organisers denied that compliance regulations were breached in 2015 and said they continuously refine their compliance processes. They maintain it complies with all laws and export controls imposed by the UK Government and allows government agencies full access to its premises.

The organisers said: "All defence and security exhibitions in the UK including DSEI can serve only the legitimate defence and security industry which is the most tightly regulated industry in the world.

"This means exhibitors and visitors must adhere to the highest regulatory scrutiny, complying with UK and international laws, treaties and conventions.

"DSEI itself works closely with government departments including the MoD, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, BIS [Business, Industries and Skills] and Home Office to ensure this strict compliance with all rules, regulations and laws. Furthermore, the UK Government itself is responsible for inviting international delegations."

Critics point to the fact that the UK Government licences the export of arms to countries on its own watch list for human rights violations.

What has the Government said?

A spokesman for the Department of International Trade , which is responsible for issuing invitations to DSEI, 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."

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