Monday September 8, 2003
On September 11, the defence industry will be commemorating those who died in New York two years ago with a gala dinner in a central London hotel. Here, the world's best weapons makers will be breaking gourmet bread with the world's best weapons buyers, discussing future deals in the safety of a private event, guarded by police lines. The gala dinner is the highlight of Europe's biggest arms fair, Defence Systems and Equipment International (DSEI), a five-day weapons expo held in London's Docklands. Indeed, such is the extent of the event's glitziness that the defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, will be its starring guest speaker.
The gala date, says Alan Sharman, director general of the Defence Manufacturers Association,the organisers, is pure coincidence. Even if it had not been a coincidence, he says, it would not have been an issue, since a weapons expo dinner is no different from a motor or boat show dinner (his examples). You'd only think it a problem, says Sharman, if you had a problem with the arms fair.
Well, OK then, I do have a problem with the arms fair. For a start, with the fact that Britain, under a government allegedly committed to an ethical foreign policy, is playing host to an exhibition selling arms to whichever nation wants to buy them. It doesn't matter how you treat your people, how much buying weapons eats into your country's budget, who you have a conflict with or what you are using those weapons for - if you're able to buy, Britain will open the doors to its arms supermarket for you.
Among the list of nations invited to attend DSEI 2003 are Saudi Arabia, where torture and political arrests remain rife; Kenya, where routine executions and torture take place; Colombia, where last year 4,000 civilians were killed for political motives; and Turkey, where torture in police custody remains widespread. Amnesty International says that the appalling human rights records of these nations "graphically illustrates why there must be end-use monitoring in arms sales, so that there can be real assurance that the UK is not inadvertently supporting internal repression, torture or police brutality overseas".
Also on the list of DSEI invites is Syria, the US-decreed "axis of evil" state supposed to be harbouring chemical weapons. And China has been invited too, even though it is the subject of a partial arms embargo. Britain supplies 20% of the world market in arms, second only to the US. During the 1990s alone, approximately 4 million people were killed in violent conflicts - and civilians made up 90% of these deaths. Join the dots.
Trade in weapons, moreover, not only overrides any kind of law on whom to trade with, but also on what to sell. At DSEI 2001, journalists exposed two separate companies attempting to sell anti-personnel landmines, banned under British law. And to cap it all, events such as this month's arms fair are financially assisted by the government. It's estimated that DSEI 2003 will cost at least £1.5m in subsidies and extra policing - covered by the taxpayer. When did you or I agree to that? Weapons trade is something we may have come to accept as an inevitability, yet it is the one area where nimbyism goes legitimate. To say that arms trading would exist whether or not Britain held a weapons fair is a bit like saying child porn would go on whether or not you happen to run the website hosting it. You'd make a killing out of both, but you'd die bearing the responsibility of either.
And that this gala dinner falls on September 11 has a particular resonance because it invokes the war on terror logic peddled ever since those monumental towers turned to dust. This irrefutable logic goes: you see, bad guys are out there, that's why we need to stock up on big guns. But time and again, those whose loved ones were killed in the September 11 attacks say that the way to avenge such acts of terror would be to stop further deaths, to stop giving the "bad guys" reasons to pick up the big guns. It seems that grief brings not a thirst for revenge, but a wish that such devastation should never be experienced by anyone else, not even an adversary.
Rita Lasar, one American who lost a brother in the twin towers, has said that when his death was used to justify the war on Afghanistan, "It was as horrendous a blow to me as the actual attacks on September 11." She describes this binding of her brother's death with a call to arms as insincere, hypocritical and exploitative. To invoke the deaths of September 11 as the validation for bigger military budgets and the perpetual war on terror is a dishonour in the extreme. On September 11 this year, the most respectful commemoration of those 3,016 lives horribly wasted in that day's attacks would be to disarm the trade in death.
· Rachel Shabi is a writer specialising in social justice issues.