This February, the small town of Farnborough played host to police forces from 64 different countries. They were there for "Security and Policing", a secretive annual event organised by the Home Office to promote the latest in "security" equipment and technology. Journalists and the wider public are banned from attending, with the organisers claiming this allows companies to exhibit tools “which would be too sensitive to show in a more open environment.”
This year US police reps were among the attendees. While there, they will have been greeted by UK civil servants and arms company representatives, while rubbing shoulders with delegations from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Uzbekistan and a host of other police forces that have been accused of violent repression and torture.
This was not just a chance to mingle. These events, and the promotion of this kind of equipment, can have deadly consequences. Away from the friendly drinks receptions and celebratory dinners, equipment of the type being promoted in Farnborough is doing very serious damage.
Unfortunately, it came as little surprise to discover that the US is among the countries to which the UK exports the kind of weapons that are being turned on campaigners. The murder of George Floyd and the brutal violence against protesters demonstrates the dangers of a militarised police force that feels empowered to act indiscriminately and with little concern for accountability.
Tear gas is banned from conflict zones, but it is sold by arms dealing governments including the UK and used by repressive police forces around the world.
In 2014 the Hong Kong police used UK-made tear gas against pro-democracy campaigners. In the aftermath of the crackdown the UK government pledged to take the abuses into account before approving licences to Hong Kong in future.
Unfortunately, within 12 months the UK was again allowing the export of this this types of weapon to the Hong Kong authorities. Last summer the same equipment was used again, with the same horrific results.
Likewise, in 2011 UK-made tear gas was used against protesters by Egyptian forces, aiding a bloody crackdown which killed more than 800 people. It has been sold to Greece, where tear gas has been used against refugees, and to France, where tear gas was used against Black Lives Matter protests in Paris.
The problem is not a lack of legislation as much as a lack of political will. According to the consolidated criteria for arms exports: “The government will not grant a licence if there is a clear risk that the items might be used for internal repression.” This sentence alone should have been enough to have stopped every single one of these deals.
It's not just an issue for UK foreign policy. Police repression and state violence will be familiar to many people here. Black people in the UK have been fighting for decades for an end to our own deeply entrenched racial discrimination and inequality. This includes police violence and disproportionate targeting of black people, disparities in health and education outcomes and the policies that lead to the Windrush deportations and the Hostile Environment policy.
In total, 166 MPs have called on the government to cancel the licences to the US, including the shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry and the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford. Stopping these arms sales would send a powerful statement, but there must also be an end to the mindset and policies that allowed them in the first place.
As things stand, the Security and Policing event is scheduled to return to Farnborough next February. Following the events of the last few weeks, it is time for it to be shut down. For too long, human rights and democracy have been ignored in favour of promoting militarised policing, lucrative arms sales and cosy relationships with repressive regimes.
When we stand in solidarity with campaigners in the US and beyond, it is also vitally important that we don’t just see it as an American issue, and instead challenge the hypocrisy, complicity and state violence that is used, promoted, and exported by our government.
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