The arms fair is coming to town
Part of east London will become a no-go zone this September as the capital once again plays unwilling host to the world’s largest arms fair. James O’Nions investigates...
Every two minutes, someone somewhere dies as a result of armed conflict. It directly fuels poverty and was largely behind the 13 million people worldwide who were internally displaced or forced to become refugees in 2003. So what action does the British government take against those responsible for this global horror. Diplomatic pressure? Sanctions? Rarely. Instead, every two years, London plays host to the world’s military forces, who come to the capital to shop for new weapons and other equipment.
Defence Systems and Equipment International (DSEi) brings together arms companies, ‘military influencers’ and procurement officials in a four-day encounter at the ExCel Centre in Docklands that is central to keeping the wheels of the global arms trade turning. US companies such as Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, Raytheon and General Dynamics dominate this field, but European giants including BAE Systems (UK), Thales (France), EADS (Germany, France, Spain) and Finmeccanica (Italy) are not far behind. This year, from 13-16 September, they will line up with hundreds of smaller companies to market missiles, tanks, fighter aircraft, attack helicopters, torpedoes, warships, small arms and the software and hardware to back all these things up.
DSEi is a product of the government’s privatisation policies. In 1999, it asked the private sector to start organising an equivalent to the long-running Royal Navy and British Army Equipment Exhibition. Ever since, Spearhead Exhibitions, now a subsidiary of information and education giant Reed Elsevier, has been making a tidy profit on what has become the world’s biggest tri-service (land, sea and air) arms fair. More than 1,000 exhibitors and 20,000 pre-approved visitors are expected at this year’s event.
Despite the large attendance, DSEi is heavily subsidised by the UK taxpayer. In 2003, direct costs amounted to £400,000, but this figure was tiny compared to unknown costs such as uncharged civil service and army personnel time. And as killing machines were being sold on the inside, a £4 million policing operation involving some 3,000 officers was taking place on the outside to ensure that protesters could not shut down the exhibition. Even that is likely to be dwarfed by the policing of this year’s event, which will include the imposition of an extensive exclusion zone around the venue.
The arms fair is opposed by both Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, and the local council. But central government support for DSEi is hardly surprising. The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) calculates that the government spends £888 million annually on subsidising arms exports. This includes ‘export credit’ – the underwriting of arms sales to ensure that companies don’t lose out should a country default on its payments. Military goods make up only 2 per cent of UK exports but receive 25 per cent of the export credit budget. Government subsidies also contribute to research and development, the use of military and diplomatic personnel and the cost of maintaining the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO), the MoD’s arms marketing department, which employs 600 civil servants across 18 countries with the sole purpose of helping to sell UK arms abroad.
DESO works very closely with Spearhead for DSEi and has a special role in deciding who is invited to send delegations. At the last arms fair in 2003, these included the governments involved in 12 of the 18 major armed conflicts raging at the time. They took their place alongside regimes with clear records of human rights abuses, such as Colombia, China, Algeria, Nigeria and Israel. Both India and Pakistan were invited despite standing on the brink of war. This year, as the world postures on making poverty history in Africa, impoverished countries such as Angola and Tanzania look set to be invited again and encouraged to increase their foreign debt to line the pockets of the western military industry that dominates the international arms trade.
In order to justify DSEi against the backdrop of growing international opposition, the Defence Manufacturers Association has resorted to the claim that DSEi is not an arms fair, just an exhibition. Yet DSEi’s own 2005 brochure states clearly that it ‘fulfills an important role within the selling process for defence companies’. The reality is that by organising and facilitating DSEi, Reed Elsevier and the British government are enabling international big business to profit financially from the death and suffering of millions and directly fuelling war and conflict around the world.
CAAT and others are organising a week of protests and other events against DSEi from 8-13 September. See www.caat.org.uk for more information