Every two years, London’s ExCel centre plays host to DSEI (Defence and Security Equipment International), one of the world’s largest arms fairs. The 2021 event, scheduled for September 14-17, will include exhibitors such as Leonardo, a company with links to arming Israel, and BAE Systems, which has supplied over 200 combat aircraft to Saudi Arabia and profited heavily from the war in Yemen.

A Secretive Issue

Once again, ‘Stop the Arms Fair’ protesters are demonstrating against the UK’s direct supply or sale of weapons to oppressive regimes and the country’s role in facilitating these deals, which the Arms Fair exemplifies.

The programme of demonstrations and workshops for Stop the Arms Fair begins in advance of the Arms Fair. The aim is to disrupt preparations and inform the public about a trade conveniently conducted behind closed doors.

The disconnection between the police and protesters is palpably icy. Standing in the crowd, I observe protesters gather by the road where haulage vehicles transport tanks and weapons (or their prototype models) to the ExCel centre for exhibiting at the fair. Some block the road, others attempt to ‘D-lock’ themselves to the trucks as they pass by à la Emily Davison. They heckle the moving procession carrying arms and armoured vehicles. Demonstrators speak of ‘their privilege’ of watching a tank drive by and ‘not having to fear it’ because ‘that is not its intended purpose’.

Since the majority of UK arms are being sold via a ‘secretive and opaque licensing regime’, the arms trade issue is not put before Parliament, and this partly explains why it is not covered by the mainstream media. The issue’s secretive nature makes Freedom of Information requests invaluable to the demonstrators keen on educating the public.

Checkered Past

A number of attendees the UK invited to the last DSEI arms fair were ‘on its own list of human rights abusers’. This demonstrates how closely the Arms Fair is entangled with other social justice issues that escape notice.   One investigation found that ‘Britain [has] sold over £20 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia during its war in Yemen’, which began in late 2014, This figure is ‘three times higher than previously thought’.

In the 1990s, the corporation Halliburton collaborated on Burmese oil pipeline projects. This involved a string of abuses such as murder, torture, rape, forced labour and the relocation of villages under a brutal dictatorship that the company backed.

Today, that same company, which also profited from the Iraq war, partners with University College London (UCL) on a chemical engineering research grant. This is the tip of the iceberg. In total, UK universities have received: ‘at least £190 million in research funding from arms-producing and military services companies since 2013’.

This includes Oxford University receiving research grants, some totalling six figures, from companies such as Lockheed Martin and Rolls Royce, a supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia. Subsequently, the ‘Demilitarise Education’ (DE) branch of the protests is prominent in this year’s demonstrations.

Being Blind-Sided

You might ask, what keeps driving people to challenge an issue of this magnitude?

Firstly, the belief that the current moment is part of a wider historical process in which armament is not the answer. In the words of one protester: ‘The Taliban have demonstrated immeasurable cruelty, but I believe they too can change. Our own Middle Ages was no great shakes’.

Secondly, looking at who is protesting sheds light on the reasoning. Arms trade corruption goes unchallenged because of the wealth and jobs the industry generates. Those who are not yet employed or have stepped off the workforce ladder risk little in terms of financial or workplace disadvantage by calling it out. This explains the strong presence of students and retirees at the protests.

The student-led DE groups report that students’ expertise and research is being exploited by arms companies. Students are blissfully unaware of the true purpose of their research, or that they are ‘manufacturing the weapon of tomorrow’. It’s also not uncommon for students to be offered scholarships in arms companies that use weapons against innocent civilians while masquerading as ‘security firms’. Near-graduates are unknowingly recruited to contribute to death and destruction when they think the work involves its prevention.

The DE groups are motivated by the belief that: ‘students should not be used in these circumstances without a clear understanding of what is ultimately the result of the research they are taking part in’. The fact that university career services do not advertise any posts or internships with arms companies is a core demand of the groups.

Speaking with retirees and older people, the memory of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the women of Greenham Common continues to be a driving force for action.

CND supporter Caroline, now in her 70s, told me: ‘Banking up more weapons to defeat putative weapons does not work; humans will kill each other on such a scale. I just don’t believe that billions of pounds on weapons […] is a good use of taxes when people are starving and we have food banks’.

For Caroline, the need to ‘re-examine our Western values and address our own greed’ is the first and right step forward. In a way, incremental steps have already been made towards this through decolonisation and green goals, but the journey is far from over.

For me, the sight of a tank in transport being protected by police is telling. Just because something is legal, doesn’t make it morally right.

To listen to the full interview click here.

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