DSEI 2009 – Resisting the Merchants of Death

September 7, 2009

This week, London is once again playing host to thousands of industry representatives, analysts, foreign delegations and, because of the activities of the aforementioned groups, thousands more protesters. Yes, its time for DSEI (Defense Systems and Equipment International) – one of the world’s largest arms fairs, which is staged every two years in the heart of London, much to the annoyance of anyone in the city who happens to care about human rights.

The fair has had a chequered history, to say the least. A delegation from Iraq sauntered over to peruse the products of Great British know-how in 1986, at the peak of Saddam’s devastating war with Iran, and just prior to his deployment of chemical weapons against the fractious Kurds. Both India and Pakistan have loaded themselves up with ordinance via DSEI, as did Lebanon and Israel during the 1990s, while Latin American dictators were frequent visitors in the early days.

It’s safe to say that DSEI has contributed to the death and maiming of many thousands, perhaps millions of innocent people over the years, a reality which has drawn constant resistance from human rights defenders. In 1999, as the anarchist zine Schnews reported, “people seriously harangued delegates, locking onto trains, blocking roads, launching water-borne sorties, breaching the conference centre.” In 2001, thousands more took to the streets and managed to coerce the organizers of the fair into “banning” cluster bombs from DSEI 2003. In 2003, activists loosely organized beneath the Disarm DSEI banner, locked themselves onto railways and blockaded the site entrance, while protesters raided the offices of exhibitors across the capital. Similar protests were organized in 2005 and 2007, but the arms jambouree continues.

This year, Disarm DSEI plans a host of actions in the City of London and at the Conference site itself beginning tomorrow (Tuesday) and continuing all week. Yet before the protests have begun, there are fears that the anti-arms trade protests will not be treated as leniently as the recent Camp for Climate Action (held on London’s Blackheath). Disarm DSEI has issued an open letter voicing its fears about the week, citing the anti-G20 protests held in April 2009 as a precedent. As is widely known, those protests were met with extreme police repression (by British standards), with thousands of protesters being “kettled” in Bank Square for almost ten hours, and a Climate Camp action being roughly dismantled despite its overtly non-violent nature. One bystander died at the hands of police (see here for details) and many reported injuries and serious violations of their civil liberties.

Disarm DSEI fears that this week will see a repeat performance, and with good reason. As the open letter argues, “The UK government support the global arms trade, and it controls the police force – ensuring that the arms dealers reach their destinations and their investors are not embarrassed or inconvenienced will always come before allowing public dissent.”

Because the collective is gathered mainly from anarchists, as opposed to the Climate Camp movement, Disarm DSEI has not chosen to actively seek to negotiate with police, fearing a dilution of its effectiveness. As the letter continues, “We are facilitating a protest but we are not in control of any of the actions undertaken by the participants, nor do we want to be…We cannot make any commitments and we cannot undertake to condone or condemn any particularly form of action.”

Moreover, anti arms-trade activists have had a far more sobering relationship with the police than climate change protesters. They write that: “DSEi was the protest where the police began to make use of Section 44 Terrorism Act searches.  DSEi policing has been violent, intimidating, and repressive.  Use of kettling has been widespread, as have arbitrary arrests and harassment of “known” activists.” Those who step forward as “organizers” of protests that seek to strike directly at corporate power have also been “targeted by the police for further harassment and intimidation, and/or have been threatened with or arrest for the actions of others at demonstrations.”

A confrontational dynamic is assured, and with good reason. Disarm DSEI and those gathering underneath its umbrella will, of course, be non-violent, in direct opposition to those gathering under the DSEI logo in London’s Docklands. Yet their protests, being kept secret (one hopes) from the authorities, will bring repression that those peddling tomahawk missiles, trainer jets and cluster bomb components will avoid.

Despite this, protests will undoubtedly be vibrant and numerous. A convergence centre has been set up for those interested in attending (details here) while the meeting point for tomorrow’s protests has been designated as RBS Aldgate East – a richly symbolic jump-off point given that banks’ role in the implosion of the British economy and its funding for both arms deals and environmental devastation.  For those attending, a handy map has been produced, showing potential targets  while a critical mass cycle ride has been announced for 9am tomorrow, leaving from Bank Junction – the site of Ian Tomlinson’s killing in April.

The stage is set for a political event of some importance, so how has the corporate media responded?

Well, as is to be expected, the coverage of both DSEI and the build up to the protests around it has been minimal. The Evening Standard has carried some fairly neutral coverage but aside from that, there has been virtually nothing. The Observer has reported that Libyan officials will be in attendance, but its report by Mark Townsend gives no context, telling readers nothing about other authoritarian human rights abusers who will be there. The Independent, however, has gone even further than that, running a fawning profile of Alex Dorrian, the chief executive of arms firm Thales.

The paper’s Sarah Arnott allows Dorrian to argue that “The problem is that people just think of the ‘arms trade’, when in fact it is a really ethical business” – describing him as “deceptively softly spoken.” She comments that “For several years the UK has consistently held a 20 per cent share of the global export market, and in 2007 became the world’s biggest exporter, with £10bn-worth of new contracts” – a potentially damning statistic as many of those exports go to nations like Israel and Colombia. Yet Arnott adds that “The danger is that short-term financial pressures will sap such strength.” So readers are told that the British government should buttress its military industrial complex in order to protect “one of the last bastions of UK manufacturing.”

Arnott’s propaganda piece allows Dorrian to make the claim that the activities of firms like (French owned) Thales and heroically corrupt BAE are carried out in the British national interest, and not for private profit. It’s an extraordinary work of journalism. One of Britain’s leading (supposedly) liberal mouthpieces concludes its only coverage of DSEI by concluding that “Amid the rocket launchers, hand grenades and surveillance drones at DSEI next week may lie the future of Britain’s knowledge economy.” How on earth can such an economy ever be intertwined with “ethical concerns”?

The truth is that, notwithstanding the words of mercenaries like Arnott, the arms trade – and the British segment of it in particular – is a global disease. In August, for example, the Guardian did manage to report that members of the House of Commons had begun investigations into claims that British arms dealers had bought ex-Soviet weapons from Ukraine and sold them onto African despots.

A document handed to the MPs from the Commons select committee on arms export controls by Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister reportedly contained “a list of UK registered brokers to whom the Ukrainian State Service for Export Control had licensed the export of collectors’ items (light arms) from the Soviet stockpile of weapons” while “end users on the list included countries for which there are Foreign and Commonwealth Office restrictions on the export of strategic goods.”

Instead of acting to support such an investigation, the British government responded to news of its inception by trying to suppress it. Foreign Secretary David Milliband reportedly asked the MPs not to publish their report into the allegations, citing the need to protect its own investigations into the named firms. Yet the MPs responded to Milliband’s efforts by expressing their doubts that the Foreign Office could have been unaware of the re-export scam.

As the Committee reported, “We are extremely concerned that the UK embassy in Kiev, the Export Control Organisation and HM Revenue & Customs were all unaware of the existence of this list of UK brokers who had been granted export licences by the Ukraine State Service for Export Control, particularly as it was provided to us freely by the Ukrainians.” In other words, they were obliquely accusing the Foreign Office of knowing that such a trade existed and turning a blind eye.

The same report also accused the British government of allowing the export of components to be exported to Israel which were later used during the latter nation’s brutal assault on the Gaza Strip in late 2008 and early 2009.

Such accusations, and the crimes that they relate to, are routine products of the arms trade. The media silence on such ongoing crimes against humanity is deafening. Where are the synoptic articles which bring together UK support for Israel with the re-export of Ukrainian small arms and the retailing of weapons to the Sri Lankan government? How can people make an informed judgement about whether the tactics of anti-DSEI protesters are justified without such information being made available?

The absence of such issues from the mass media is what makes the protests this week so crucial. The arms trade lobbies furiously for subsidies and permission to spread its murderous tentacles across the globe. The industry spends millions on PR firms, which furnish its image so successfully that papers like the “Independent” can run puff pieces like Arnott’s with a straight face. Only organized, skilled grassroots action can form an effective counterweight to such concentrated corporate power.

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