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DSEI is at last becoming seen as unacceptable

It’s important we keep up the pressure and expose the arms fair in London’s Docklands for what it is – a market in death, writes PAUL DONOVAN

HAS anything changed with the DSEI arms exhibition over the past 20 years, aside from it getting bigger?

There has been much controversy surrounding the recent Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair at the ExCel centre in London.

Condemnation of the event has come from a number of quarters, including the mayor of London and faith leaders. 

And rightly so — the arrival of so many people in the business of trading weapons, designed to kill people more efficiently, is not a good look for a major capital city.

Yet the biennial arms fair has endured. Some 20 years ago, the DSEI was held in Chertsey, welcoming arms dealers to the Surrey countryside. There was protest then but the arms fair went on regardless.

Travelling on the train, then wandering around the exhibition, it was striking how many people just regarded being in the arms business as like any other job. The “I’m just following orders” attitude seemed to abound.

The 1999 DSEI turned out to be a big story for myself as a journalist. I had had a tip-off that there was a Romanian company exhibiting, selling illegal anti-personnel landmines.

I had been involved as a journalist, exposing some of the damage done by these weapons across the world. I had seen at first hand in Cambodia in the 1990s the damage done, with young and old struggling through life after having legs blown off.

A memory that has always stuck with me was of a 10-year-old girl at the Cambodia Trust amputee centre in Phnom Penh, working her way along parallel bars, as she learned how to use her two new prosthetic legs.

There were also the stories of arms-makers, designing these weapons in bright colours so that children might pick them up. 

No doubt the same individuals would then go home to their own children, having compartmentalised their daytime activities. Just doing the job.

So the DSEI exhibition held a particular relevance for me. The whole process of ascertaining what was going on at the Romanian company Romtehnica’s stand proved surprisingly easy. 

Having got into the exhibition on my press pass, I went over to the company’s stall and asked about anti-personnel mines. 

The informant that told me of the illegal weapons had mentioned one or two mines. The salesman brought out a whole list of products available.

After obtaining the evidence I left, to be met outside by Channel 4 News. They had agreed to do the story, which then went on to headline that evening and on into the evening. 

It ran across the media after that. I contributed across the national press — including the Morning Star.

A government inquiry was established to look into what was going on. After the initial furore died down I heard little more for a couple of months. 

Then the Ministry of Defence Police got in touch. Two officers came to my home to take a statement, as I was a witness to these illegal actions on British soil.

The statement process was completed, though it was difficult not to get the impression that the MoD police were more interested in myself than the alleged crime — or was I just being paranoid?

Anyway, nothing further was heard on the case. I returned to the exhibition two years later, this time on 11 September 2001 — there wasn’t thankfully any sign of illegal anti-personnel landmines being sold. 

Had there been, it would have been very difficult to get the news out that day with events in New York taking over the world news agenda.

There have been instances down the years of companies selling things they shouldn’t have been at DSEI but it does seem scrutiny and security tightened up following the landmines incident.

What is surprising and disturbing, though, is that the DSEI arms exhibition seems to have grown as a major place for companies to sell weaponry. 

The exhibition has been smack in the middle of the London Docklands for a number of years, so no longer out in the Surrey countryside, miles away from anywhere. DSEI appears on the up, not in decline.

That is what makes the protests at the recent event so important, as well as the intervention of the London mayor and church leaders. 

It is a sign that the event is at last becoming seen as unacceptable — a market in death. An event that normalises killing, as well as the industry that helps create the tools of that trade.

Journalists too must continue to report on what is going on inside the confines of DSEI — the PR operations may be slicker now, but the very presence of journalists does help to police the activities of those attending. 

All of these factors should combine together to one day lead to the exit of DSEI from the capital. It is not something wanted in London now or in the future. 

The promotion of war and death is not something that should have a place anywhere in our country.

For more of Paul Donovan’s writing visit


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