London arms fair: A matter of shame

“The UK’s involvement in the arms trade – we are the second largest arms exporter in the world – is a matter of shame for our country.” The DSEI arms fair takes place in London this week, and Green MEP Ellie Chowns calls for protests against the exhibition, which will see UK-made arms sold to regimes using them against civilians.

Protestors at a London demonstration against the UK-Saudi arms trade
Protestors at a London demonstration against the UK-Saudi arms trade

Flickr / Alisdare Hickson / cc by-sa 2.0

Ellie Chowns

The UK has licensed over £4.7 billion worth of arms exports to Saudi Arabia since the bombing of Yemen began in March 2015. Since then, according to the Yemen Data Project, 97,980 fatalities have been reported in Yemen – of these, 12,046 have been civilian deaths from direct targeting.

Perhaps this seems like just another statistic, another distant conflict. The reality here is much closer to home. The uncomfortable truth is that our government is complicit in the ongoing war in Yemen.

Since the start of the conflict in 2014, a Saudi-led coalition of nine countries, backed by the US and the UK, has provided air and naval support to restore the disputed Hadi government in Sana’a. Saudi-led airstrikes have targeted civilian areas and have caused huge amounts of destruction to infrastructure in the country.

There is clear evidence that UK-made weapons have been used in the Saudi air strikes. Just last week, a UN panel of experts discovered fragments of British-made bomb parts at the site of a September 2016 airstrike in Yemen’s capital of Sana’a. Earlier in 2016, the then foreign secretary Boris Johnson and other key ministers had decided in secret to allow the export of weapons systems to Saudi Arabia without properly assessing the risk to civilians.

Two months ago, the Court of Appeal ruled that British arms sales to Saudi Arabia are unlawful, following a case brought by Campaign Against the Arms Trade. As a result, no new exports can be approved.

Despite this, a Saudi Arabian delegation remains on the guestlist for its latest arms export showcase. On 10-13 September, the UK is supporting the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) fair in London, with organisers marketing the ‘unrivalled scale’ of the event. Taking place every two years, this arms fair is sponsored by the Ministry of Defence and the Defence and Security Organisation (part of the Department for International Trade). This year, more than 35,000 people are expected to attend the fair, with guests including the controversial state-owned Saudi Arabian Military Industries firm.

In the meantime, the UK Government is challenging the July 2019 decision of the Court of Appeal that British arms sales to Saudi Arabia are unlawful.

Government ministers claim that the processes underpinning the arms trade in the UK are ‘rigorous’. But this is far from the reality. UK-made arms are being used to perpetrate human rights abuses. Our government is prioritising profit over people. The UK’s involvement in the arms trade – we are the second largest arms exporter in the world – is a matter of shame for our country.

That's why I’m joining protesters this Friday to demonstrate against the UK Government’s role in selling arms to Saudi Arabia, and against your tax money being used to support the DSEI arms fair.

I have also co-signed a letter to Secretary of State for International Trade Liz Truss, urging our government to implement an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia, as many of our European neighbours have already done. It is completely unacceptable that the UK is selling arms to a country with such an appalling human rights record, and is therefore complicit in war crimes against civilians in Yemen.

One of the many risks posed by Brexit is that standards will be lowered in pursuit of race-to-the-bottom trade deals. This risk threatens not just our NHS and food standards, but humanitarian standards too. Being part of the EU strengthens the voices of those campaigning for higher standards. For example, the European Parliament has called on the Council to impose an EU-wide arms embargo on Saudi Arabia.

If, like me, you think our government’s failure to enact an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia is deeply concerning, there is something you can do to stop this.

Make your voice heard! Let the UK Government know that this is not acceptable.

If you can get to the ExCeL exhibition centre in London over the coming days, join the protest. If you are not able to demonstrate in person, make your voice heard via social media, by writing to your MP and by signing this petition.

Ellie Chowns is Green MEP for the West Midlands.