Hundreds of activists took part in a series of actions against the arms trade today as the biannual Defence and Security International arms fair opened its doors to a host of governments, arms dealers and security companies at the Excel Centre in East London.
The day of action, called by Stop the Arms Fair, a coalition of groups and individuals, saw protests outside: parliament, BAE systems, Britain’s biggest arms manufacturer, DSEI fair organiser Clarion Events and the fair itself with one arrest reported at the time of writing.
In a keynote speech to delegates, Defence Secretary Liam Fox said that sales from the fair would help protect the national interest and ‘give many people in many parts of the world new hope’.
He also boasted that the weapons had been ‘tried and tested in some of the most demanding environments in the world.
However the government has come under criticism for inviting representatives from 14 authoritative regimes criticised by human rights organisations including Bahrain, which violently clamped down on pro-democracy demonstrations this year killing dozens of protesters, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
The fair is co-sponsored by the UK Trade and Investment Defence and Security Organisation, a government arm that helps promote UK companies abroad, which contributed around £200,000 in 2009.
The tax payer also stumped up a further £1.8 million on policing for the event.
Mr Fox pointed out that the industry employs 300,000 people in the UK with the treasury pocketing £2 billion in tax receipts with a further £35b spent in the wider economy, although industry body ADS (Advancing UK Aerospace, Defence and Security Industries) puts the employment figures at around 110,000 and total spend at £22b.
David Ireson, a vicar from Devon and member of Christian peace group Pax Christi who travelled up for the demonstration outside parliament, said: “In the news this morning the defence minister Liam Fox said it was in the national interest to sell weapons, but I don’t feel it’s in the national interest or humanity’s interest.
“I’m not a pacifist entirely, we have to be able to protect ourselves, but when we are selling arms for profit that’s a different matter. The whole purpose of it is to bring death and destruction for profit.”
Meanwhile, outside Earls Court Exhibition Centre, in West London, a dozen activists, some donning costumes, handed out leaflets to members of the public and attendees at a entertainment industry event.
Before being moved off the centre’s premises by police and security, campaigner Martin Bowman said: “This is where Clarion Events’ headquarters is and we want to raise awareness of what they do. They own 13 arms fairs around the world so they really are a leading player in this unethical business.”
Later in the afternoon around 30 mostly young Christians demonstrated and sang outside Tower 42 (the former Nat West Tower), in the heart of London’s financial centre, where it is believed US drone manufacturer General Atomics opened an office in April.
The group quickly drew the attention of the police with three vans arriving and a helicopter scrambled in minutes while a FIT operative filmed and photographed them.
Further actions included a ‘die-in’ at BAE systems, in West London, where around 60 people played dead in front of the building, a protest at the National Gallery where a reception was being held for delegates from the arms fair and former defence minister Geoff Hoon was reportedly escorted in by eight police officers and several actions took place outside Customs House throughout the day, where one person was arrested.
Asked if years of campaigning against the arms trade had made much difference, veteran campaigner Bruce Kent, the former English cricket captain and honoury vice-president of CND, said: “I think it’s as bad as it’s ever been, but the one good thing is that people are more aware of the problem than ever.”
Not to be disheartened activists will take part in an eight-mile parade through London tomorrow from the offices of UKTI DSO, in Westminster, to the arms fair in Newham challenging the recent ban on marching as they pass through the City of London and Tower Hamlets en-route.