The demonstration on 21 September was also on the United Nations International Day of Peace.
Report by Jack Durrell for Campaign Against Arms Trade, who organised the demonstration.
DESO’s offices are housed in an anonymous grey building that displays nothing to suggest the weapons marketing campaigns planned within its walls. Save for a few army recruitment posters in a ground floor window, its military connections are inconspicuous to say the least and passers-by could mistake it for just another corporate office building.
CAAT campaigners gathered behind steel barriers opposite the offices carrying placards that urged the government to close DESO and to stop promoting arms exports. To the amusement of passers-by, four actors from the Theatre of War impersonated DESO civil servants, in the style of the Ministry of Silly Walks, wearing suits and bowler hats and brandishing models of rockets and missiles. They carried placards stating ‘I promote arms exports in the civil service’, but had thought-bubbles that stated ‘I’d rather promote peace’.
The Fanning the Flames campaign is a response to New Labour continuing its supply of arms to countries engaged in armed conflicts. Despite superficial moves such as the introduction of an ethical foreign policy, and a 2002 announcement by the International Development Secretary that the arms trade “belonged in a world of the past”, the government has licensed arms to twenty countries engaged in armed conflicts including Colombia, Israel, India and Pakistan. The export of arms from the UK has only fuelled conflict in these countries, with civilians bearing the brunt of their use. The World Health Organization estimates that around 191 million people have lost their lives because of armed conflict in the twentieth century and has calculated that around 35 people are killed each hour as a direct result of armed conflict. CAAT is convinced that the closure of DESO will help reduce such suffering around the world.
Once our presence was felt and passers-by were aware of exactly why we were
outside DESO’s office, CAAT’s Local Campaigns Co-ordinator Beccie D’Cunha gathered everyone for press photos and introduced the speakers. These included Chris Cole, former CAAT Local Campaigns Co-ordinator and now Director of the Fellowship for Reconciliation, and Paul Ingram, a defence economist and analyst.
Chris Cole began by criticising the government for reneging on its promises not to export arms to regions of armed conflict, and urged protesters to continue lobbying their MPs so their grievances could be channelled to the Prime Minister. He finished by reiterating how important it was to continue protesting against DESO. “One way we can begin to end the arms trade is to shut this,” he said, pointing to DESO’s offices.
Next up was Paul Ingram who stated that the downfall of the British arms industry was well in sight. “We could feel demoralized because today our numbers seem few, but I have news for you” he said. “The UK defence industry is in decline and we are instrumental in why it is declining – it is all down to people like you.”
He explained that the Ministry of Defence’s budget had declined considerably since the end of the Cold War, and that the British defence industry was losing out to American competition. Paul added that the government is increasingly becoming aware of public opinion – some polls put opposition to the arms trade as high as 85 percent – and as a consequence there was pressure within Whitehall to put an end to military industry subsidies. The British taxpayer currently pays between £420m–£900m in subsidies for arms exports, £16m of which pays for DESO. “When the government is aware of how strong our support actually is there will be yet another nail in the coffin of the defence industry,” he promised.
After the speeches had finished, there was a minute of silence for the victims of conflict. Then it was time to head to Whitehall where a group of us would hand in a petition totalling 6167 signatures and 1015 postcards urging the Prime Minister to close DESO. The procession wound its way through central London’s busy streets with campaigners handing out postcards as they walked. The civil servants from the Ministry of Silly Walks continued their street theatre en route via Covent Garden. Hundreds of postcards were handed out; the response was generally good and some of the public showed genuine interest.
Gathering in Whitehall everyone waited while the last of the signatures for the petition were scribbled down and Beccie led a delegation of supporters, including three of the spoof civil servants, over to Downing Street. Everyone bar the police officer guarding Number 10 – who rebuked them for their ‘silly’ behaviour – found amusement in their John Cleese impersonations. Many a tourist will return home with video footage of the campaigners leaving Downing Street! They handed the petition into Number 10 and returned minutes later to applause from the demonstrators. The crowd dispersed, content that further pressure had been placed on the government and the closure of DESO had been brought a step closer.
UN International Day of Peace www.un.org/events/peaceday/2003 and www.internationaldayofpeace.org
Africa Aerospace & Defence 2004 www.aadexpo.co.za
Theatre of War www.theatreofwar.org
The author of the above article was Jack Durrell