In two weeks’ time, thousands of high-powered businessmen and women will pour into the Excel Centre in East London. While there, they will be joined by representatives and delegates from all over the world for four days of networking and deals.
They won’t be gathering for just another trade show though. This will be for Defence & Security Equipment International 2017 (DSEI), one of the biggest arms fairs in the world. DSEI exists for one reason only: to promote the sale of arms, ranging from rifles to tanks to fighter jets to battleships.
The guest list hasn’t been published yet, but if past years are anything to go by then the attendees will include military personnel and representatives from some of the most abusive regimes in the world. The last event, which took place in 2015, saw the Defence and Security Organisation, a unit of UK Trade and Investment, send invites to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Pakistan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan and Egypt.
While there, buyers will be able to rub shoulders and mingle with the biggest arms companies in the world. The 10 biggest arms manufacturers will all be present, and will be only too happy to show off and promote their latest deadly wares.
It won’t just be buyers and sellers in attendance – there will also be scores of civil servants on hand to help them every step of the way.
The Government doesn’t just facilitate DSEI, it is an active participant. The event, which is supported by the Ministry of Defence and the Department of International Trade, will also see speeches from five different government ministers.
There is no way of knowing what kind of deals will be discussed at DSEI or what kind of weaponry could be sold as a result. We have no way of knowing how these weapons will be used, or who they will be used against. But the results could be horrific.
The Government’s own statistics show that over the last 10 years, around 60% of all UK arms exports have gone to the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia being by far the largest buyer.
At present, UK fighter jets and bombs are being used in the Saudi Arabian-led bombardment of Yemen. In the two and a half years since the bombing began, over 10,000 people have been killed and a terrible humanitarian crisis has taken root.
According to research by Oxfam, Yemen has fallen victim to the worst cholera outbreak on record. Regardless, the arms exports have continued. Since the start of the conflict the UK has licensed £3.8 billion worth of arms to the Saudi regime.
The problem goes much wider that Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. The UK is selling arms into conflict zones around the world.
Every year the Foreign & Commonwealth Office produces its list of ‘human rights priority countries’ these are countries where the Government has serious concerns about the state of human rights and democracy. The most recent list has 30 countries on it. In 2016 the UK licensed military equipment to 20 of them.
Events like DSEI only make it more likely that even more of these terrible deals will happen in the future.
That is why it won’t just be DSEI attendees that are descending on the Excel Centre. There will also be thousands of campaigners and activists from across the country. A week of protest and blockades has been called for the week preceding the arms fair, so that we can disrupt the setup and stop the equipment from getting in to be sold.
Those of us outside the Excel Centre will know that we have public opinion on side. Poll after poll has shown that an overwhelming majority of the UK opposes arms exports to human rights abusers and dictatorships.
In the meantime, Downing Street and Whitehall will no doubt join the DSEI organisers and arms companies in telling us about how ‘rigorous and robust’ their arms export controls supposedly are. All the while they will continue arming the world and telling themselves that it’s just business.
Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.