Stop London’s arms fair

“At a time of climate and humanitarian emergency, we must take a stand against the horrific farce that is the arms trade.” From 10-13 September, weapons from all over the world will be showcased at the world’s largest arms fair in London. Catherine Rowett, Green Party MEP for the East of England, explains why she will be protesting.

Stop Saudi arms sales
Stop Saudi arms sales

Image: Alisdare Hickson

Catherine Rowett

As a Member of the European Parliament working on human rights, I am horrified that when I return to London from Brussels this week, it will be to a city playing host to dealers of the most vicious weapons used to maim, kill and repress the world over. I and fellow Green MEPs will be joining the protests to stop the arms fair.

Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) is the world’s biggest arms fair, with over 1,600 exhibitors. Over four days at the ExCeL centre in London, an all-star cast of companies and countries with human rights records ranging from questionable to appalling meet to do deals against a bizarre background of ‘live-action demonstrations’ and seminars on topics such as ‘Unlocking the digital potential of military spouses’. It would be farcical, if it were not so brutal.

Last weekend, more than 100 people were killed when a Saudi-led airstrike hit a detention centre in Yemen. The UK was forced to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia after the Court of Appeal ruled the exports unlawful on the basis that UK weapons could be used in atrocities like that airstrike. Yet this week, Saudi arms buyers are coming to London to buy more ‘maximum effect’ weapons, and business consultancy AEI Saudi has been invited to speak about how to secure contracts in Saudi Arabia despite the temporary embargo.

How will other countries take my work as a British MEP on human rights seriously while the UK is complicit in war crimes such as these and invites the perpetrators to do their business here?

And it’s not just Saudi Arabia. A delegation from Hong Kong has been invited to DSEI, where they are expected to buy tear gas and other ‘crowd-control’ munitions, used to suppress pro-democracy protests. Many countries on the UK Foreign Office’s ‘human rights priority’ concern list are invited, including Bahrain, Egypt, Uzbekistan – all countries where freedom of association and of opinion have been violently curtailed by the authorities. Brazil, too, is on the list of attendees, as the UK tries to boost arms exports to the country, despite growing international worry about the fascistic intentions of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.

The government may defend the ‘defence’ fair by saying it is better for arms to be traded in a country where rule of law is paramount, such as the UK, than sold unlawfully in countries with less human rights rigour and less policing resource. Yet DSEI has consistently broken international laws that the UK has itself signed up to, and in previous years, cluster bombs have been repeatedly found to be being sold, despite an international ban. In reality, DSEI has nothing to do with ensuring ‘safe’ transactions, and everything to do with the government’s keenness to gain access to oil markets, no matter the cost in terms of human rights and the suffering caused.

There is a crucial link here between oil, climate change and the arms trade. The links between the arms trade and the control of fossil fuels are well-documented, while recent research has shown that climate change is already fuelling conflict around the world. The more climate change threatens natural resources, the more conflict is likely, the more weapons are sold, and the bigger the market for arms companies. The climate emergency is also a human emergency, and the arms trade has a vested interest in exploiting it.

That is why the theme for the fifth day of protest on 6 September at the ExCeL centre in London is ‘climate justice’. I will be there along with my fellow Green MEPs Ellie Chowns and Gina Dowding. Together with the brave protestors who will no doubt be risking arrest to disrupt DSEI, we will be calling for the UK to stop the arms fair. It is also vital that standards on arms exports recommended by the European Parliament are upheld by the UK, whether or not we leave the EU. At a time of climate and humanitarian emergency, we must take a stand against the horrific farce that is the arms trade.