Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.


Arms fair protesters put weapons industry on trial

The protesters who blockaded the DSEI arms fair should never have been on trial, writes Lisa Butler – it's the weapons trade that is in the wrong

April 28, 2016
6 min read

dsei defendants

Hundreds of protesters flocked to the Excel Centre in London to try to block the DSEI arms fair – one of the largest weapons fairs in the world – last year. Earlier this month, eight of us were put on trial for attempting to obstruct the roads leading to the fair. On 15 April, the judge found all of us not guilty, as we were trying to prevent crimes from happening at the arms fair.

Of course, we were ecstatic with the result, but we feel that we should never have been on trial in the first place. At the beginning of the case, it was eight activists who were on trial, but by the end of the week, we had succeeded in bringing the corrupt activities of the arms trade to public attention. It felt as though we had successfully put Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, DSEI and the UK government on trial.

We came from all over the world to oppose DSEI. One defendant, Javier, grew up in Chile under the military junta led by General Pinochet. ‘I lived under a dictatorship for nearly ten years. I remember curfews and a general sense of fear of the police and the military due to the regime’s horrific repression,’ Javier told the court. ‘The father of my school classmate was murdered by the secret police when I was six years old.’ At the age of eighteen, Javier was part of the first group of people who publicly declared themselves as conscientious objectors to military service.

Another defendant, Isa, is from Bahrain and was forced to flee the country after being imprisoned and tortured for his participation in the 2011 revolution. During the uprising, thousands of Bahrainis protested and were crushed with force, with violent intervention from Saudi Arabia. Isa told the court that he was arrested three times in 2013, and that police held a gun to his head. He was taken to the police station and stripped and beaten until he became unconscious. The police tied his hands behind his back and beat him to try to force him to give false confessions, and they threatened to cut off his penis. Bahrain has purchased £45 million of UK weapons since the 2011 uprising, indicating that UK arms are being used against the Bahraini people.

One defendant highlighted the ongoing mass killings of Kurdish people by Turkey. Having visited Kurdistan recently, she explained to the judge about the violent curfews that have been imposed on Kurdish cities. Tanks and rockets have been firing shells and mortars into the cities, while snipers have been gunning people down on the street, including children. Instead of banning Turkey from the arms fair, the UK government welcomed the war criminals with open arms.

Other defendants stated that they were particularly concerned with the sales of arms to countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Israel, and explained that they were compelled to act because illegal weapons, such as torture equipment, have been found at previous DSEI events.

Expert witnesses

While giving evidence, defendant Tom Franklin stated that: ‘In every single previous arms fair, illegal activity has been found to be happening. We have evidence of that.’

Among our expert witnesses was Oliver Sprague from Amnesty International, who talked about the illegal weapons that have been sold at every DSEI arms fair. He also highlighted the ‘legal’ weapons that are used illegally. In his report, Oliver also gave evidence of arms being used in the Yemen war:

‘[The Yemen] conflict has cost at least 3,000 civilian lives, 2.5 million people displaced and 82% of the population – some 21.2 million people – currently require some form on humanitarian assistance. Importantly, official delegations from countries directly involved in military action in Yemen were in receipt of official UK government invitations to the event, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Kuwait, Bahrain, Morocco and Jordan.’

Sprague told the court that Saudi Arabia is the largest recipient of UK arms. From July to September 2015, the UK government granted export licenses for £1.2 billion for bombs of the type being used in Yemen by Saudi Arabia.

Kat Hobbs of CAAT (Campaign Against the Arms Trade) gave the court an overview of Clarion Events, which organises DSEI. Hobbs said: ’61 countries were formally invited to DSEI 2015 by the government, and many more were invited by Clarion, who advertised the fair as the “place to do business”. Of those 61 countries, 14 are classified as being authoritarian and six are at war, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey.’

Next steps

Since winning our case, there has been much media coverage questioning of the legality of the arms fair. However, we want to stress that we are opposed to all weapons that are being produced for corporate profit, and we are against all wars where these weapons are used for imperialist gains and domination.

The Parliamentary Committee on Arms Export Controls has responded to the trial by promising to look at the legality of DSEI and how it fits in with the Arms Trade Treaty. This usually results in a lot of rhetoric and cosmetic changes, but the arms sales to human rights abusers will continue – not least because ‘legal’ arms can be used for war crimes, but also because regardless of who they are sold to, there is every chance that they will fall into different hands down the line. We have seen a decade of faux hand-wringing and promises to do better every time that wrongdoing at DSEI has been highlighted, but nothing changes.

The problem is the whole arms trade, which makes its billions in profit from murder. As Andrew Feinstein writes in his book The Shadow World: ‘The arms trade operates on collusion between world leaders, intelligence operatives, corporations at the cutting edge of technological development, financiers and bankers, transporters, shady middlemen, money launderers and common criminals.’

We are certain that whatever steps officials may say that they are taking to regulate the arms fair, there can never be an arms trade that is legitimate. So until DSEI is shut down, we will be back in force to try to prevent it from taking place. We came from the UK, Bahrain, Belgium, Chile and Peru to oppose DSEI. The arms trade takes place on a global scale, and so our resistance has no borders.

Take action: Visit the CAAT website to pledge to shut down the arms fair when it next takes place in 2017. Thanks to all the defendants for contributing to this article.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going