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Opposing DSEI, Europe’s biggest arms fair

NADJA LOVADINOV reports on her time protesting against the 2023 edition of the infamous open market of guns, bombs and other weapons war in east London

ON September 12 2023, the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) protested against the opening of the DSEI arms fair held annually at the Excel Centre in east London.

The arms fair (known euphemistically as Defence and Security Equipment International) brings representatives of the world’s governments and armed forces together to meet and do deals with arms dealers.

We held a memorial ceremony at the security entrance of the Excel, reading 100 names of people killed in war and armed conflict since the beginning of the 21st century.

Horrific double standards have prevailed in the last 23 years. While the British government condemns the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Yemeni civilians are being murdered by British-made bombs. BAE Systems is Britain’s largest arms company and has profited more than almost anyone else from the war in Yemen, selling £18 billion to Riyadh during the conflict.

It was a shock to see swarms of dealers queuing up. The year has been the biggest yet with over 35,000 attendees. Evidently, business is booming. With the war in Ukraine, many countries are restocking their weapons after aiding the conflict. With increased activity levels in this market, it’s never been better to be an arms dealer.

We, however, would not welcome warmongers.

As we greeted the dealers with the names of their victims, floods began scrambling to the security entrance. We were greeted by police sniffer dogs inspecting our bags and coats — for explosives or firearms presumably. They may not have received the memo that the bombs were inside the arms fair.

Prowling through the security check, arms dealers bowed their heads, not out of respect for their victims, but out of visible embarrassment. While our ceremony may have been muted by planes landing at London City Airport just three miles east, the diesel-smelling breeze was pungent, mixed with airs of awkwardness.

“We’re protecting you,” some declared with smug faces. Protecting us from what? The arms industry operates on a securitisation logic which uses fear as its main marketing strategy. For the sake of profit, securitisation creates the need for an enemy.

Such is the deceitful nature of the arms trade. Selling weapons under the guise of “security.” I thus found it ironic that our ceremony was staged at the Excel security entrance.

The Royal Docks itself is a fitting venue for DSEI. The subtle whiff of sea-air carried with it the bitter taste of lingering British colonialism.  

Securitisation formed a key component of European and British colonialism, drawing and dividing borders to control goods and labour.

Opened in 1802 as a secure conduit to import goods harvested from the brutal plantation-based slave economy in the West Indies. The Royal Docks were the centre of the Atlantic slave trade. It built the financial wealth of the British elite mercantile class.

Today the docks facilitate the showcase of international warships. It makes you wonder how little Western society has developed ethically and morally. The merchants whose wealth derived of colonialism, have today simply been replaced by arms dealers.

It also brings to mind the recent evacuation of the Bibby Stockholm barge due to the discovery of Legionella bacteria in the water supply, and the deaths of six asylum-seekers crossing the channel on a small boat.

Migrant Justice Day also takes place on the first day of DSEI, and the PPU was joined with other local people, faith groups and peace and human rights campaigners all part of the Stop the Arms Fair Coalition.

DSEI is hosted in the Tower Hamlets borough, which has one of the worst local deprivation levels in the country. Most recent figures showed 34 asylum-seekers living in the borough, 15 of whom were unaccompanied minors (2016).

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has in the past criticised DSEI being hosted in London describing it as “a global city, home to individuals who have fled conflict and suffered as a consequence of arms and weapons.”

Yet harmful political rhetoric towards migrants and asylum-seekers described as invaders has only intensified with Sunak’s Stop the Boats campaign.

Our enemies and threats to society do not arrive on small boats on the southern coast, but rather on warships ploughing straight into central London. The British government should really think about rebranding Stop the Boats to Stop the Warships.

By facilitating the sale of weapons to countries with poor human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey, Britain is complicit in the resulting suppression of dissent, violation of human rights, and any war crimes.

The arms trade fuels war and perpetuates poverty.

As Britain and the world face the threats of poverty, pandemics and climate chaos, the last thing the British government should be funding is an opportunity for arms dealers and despots to do deals in a London conference centre.

Today’s armed conflicts have deep roots in histories of colonialism, exacerbated by competition for control of extractive industries like oil.

Young people will bear the burden of profound global inequalities and the climate crisis. Britain has sent £1.5bn worth of military equipment to 39 of the world’s 40 most climate-vulnerable countries (ie. Pakistan and Bangladesh) since 2008, inflaming both war and environmental crisis.

Climate change exacerbates existing conflicts and is likely to create new ones. To cure our climate anxiety we must work towards dismantling the military industrial complex, the centre clog that keeps the neocolonial machine operating.

By the end of the morning, a colourful mosaic of flags and posters was laid out at the entrance that contrasted greatly with the sea of black suits flocking into Excel.

There was strong comradery between different activists and groups. It highlighted the normalisation of everyday militarism which has allowed systems of violence including the arms trade, colonialism, and environmental destruction to endure.

We must challenge the existence of the arms trade and hold our government accountable.

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