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Dealing death in the Docklands

United Kingdom

Campaign Against Arms Trade under a Creative Commons Licence

As September’ arms fair in London approaches, activists are preparing to protest, writes Michaela Whitton.

It’s August in Finsbury Park and I’m at the headquarters of Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). In a few weeks, fewer than 18 kilometres away, London will become the sinister engine room of the global arms trade. I’m here to find out what campaigners think about Britain hosting an event that’s integral to the arming of the world.

From 15 to 18 September, the ExCel centre at the heart of London’s Docklands will host one of the world’s largest arms fairs – the biennial Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEI).

Responsible for co-organizing the event is the little-known UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation (UKTI DSO), the department at the centre of the British government’s support for the arms industry. According to CAAT, the unit exists solely to help companies sell and promote weapons, employing more civil servants than other core-sector teams combined.

Despite the construction of a vast security fence around the event, there’s nothing discreet about DSEI, whose website boasts ‘unrivalled business opportunities, 1,500 exhibitors and 32,000 visitors’.

The Docklands Light Railway aids the unashamed peddling of warfare by ensuring smooth transportation of the world’s most prolific arms dealers directly from on-site hotels to the venue. Evening events grease the wheels of the industry, with the movers and shakers exchanging business cards over black-tie dinners and corporate entertainment.

The list of invitees will be released by the government when the event begins; however, the invitation list from DSEI 2013 gives us a clue as to what to expect. Of the 67 countries invited, 14 were authoritarian regimes, 9 were identified by the UK Foreign Office as having ‘the most serious wide-ranging human rights concerns’ and 6 were actively at war in 2012.

We are everywhere

To show war profiteers they’re not welcome, the Stop the Arms Fair coalition is co-ordinating a week of actions objecting to the shopping for weapons in the capital. Highlighting the cross-cutting nature of the arms trade, Palestine solidarity activists, multi-faith groups, academics and climate campaigners are just some of the groups participating in different actions with the same aim – to scupper the set-up as much as possible.

Creative demonstrations will raise awareness, block entrances and disrupt the transportation of ‘exhibits’, including everything from fighter jets to submarines, missiles, surveillance equipment and deadly drones.

CAAT Training and Events co-ordinator Sarah Reader described the importance of links formed with international groups opposing the arms trade abroad. Inspired by videos of CAAT’s 2013 actions against DSEI, activists in South Korea organized their own resistance to the South Korean arms fair – Seoul Adex.

‘The activists had mimicked a lot of our actions, even down to the banners,’ said Sarah. ‘We got in touch with them and they said: “the [exhibitors] going to DSEI are the same as those going to ADEX. We want them to know we are everywhere.”’

Selfies in the rubble

Just as I was leaving CAAT’s offices, a friend in Gaza contacted me. Muhammad Shehada is a 21-year-old engineering student at Gaza’s Islamic University, the site of an aerial bombardment during Israel’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’ in 2014 that killed over 2,000 Palestinians. I told Muhammad I was writing about the arms trade and that Britain had approved $11 million-worth of military licences to Israel in the 6-month period before the attack. I asked him what he remembers from a year ago.

‘After an escalation of tension, the first day started with airstrikes everywhere and mass shelling. The mortuary ran out of space and they had to put corpses in ice-cream freezers. In our evening prayers we called for the heavens to help us. We were betrayed by Arab leaders, given out-of-date, rotten food from Egypt and had helpless delegations taking selfies in the rubble,’ he reminisced.

He described the destruction of ambulances, schools and hospitals and recalled seeing scattered bodies in the streets. ‘People, all colours and shapes; men, women and children were running in their pyjamas; traumatized survivors from the Shejaiya massacre in unforgettable, bloody scenes. I was wandering around Gaza, expecting the car next to me to blow up or buildings I was walking past to collapse on my head,’ he explained.

Muhammad’s family were lucky to have a basement to hide in as airstrikes got closer, but after a while the combination of unbearably hot weather and Ramadan fasting during the 50-day assault meant they no longer had the energy to take cover.

‘At one point I was watching Robin Williams on an iPad – headphones blocked external hullabaloo. Alone in my room, light-bombs blowing up throughout Gaza showed us that death was inevitably coming. Strangely, I didn't care and continued watching Good Will Hunting. I think I had lost my fear of death in the first war – this time I was losing my tendency for life.’

Business as usual

Designed to make the trade less deadly, the 2014 Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) introduced common standards for arms control to prevent the flow of weapons being used in human rights abuses and internal repression, and to stop them getting into the hands of militias.

In his piece for Ceasefire magazine, ‘The Arms Trade Treaty: A historic and momentous failure’, Kirk Jackson argues that the Treaty is no more stringent than Britain’s existing arms export licensing criteria, claiming the government knew from the outset that its arms exports would be unaffected.

‘Saying we are fully compliant with the treaty sounds good, but we would argue it’s totally useless. It’s toothless,’ CAAT’s Andrew Smith explained. He pointed to supportive declarations for the Treaty from British arms suppliers such as BAE and Lockheed Martin, proving it’s no threat to them whatsoever.

Foreign Officer Minister Tobias Ellwood claims the Treaty ’puts international law and human rights at the heart of the global arms trade’, but the discrepancy between Britain’s exports and its alleged human rights concerns is laid bare by the fact that the UK has licensed weapons to 19 of the 27 countries of concern listed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Further evidence of the government’s interpretation of the Treaty in ways that allow the continued export of weapons to unstable and repressive regimes can be seen in the flourishing collaborations with the Middle East – current recipients of two-thirds of arms exports.

The impact of weapons deals made at DSEI is felt worldwide – from the suppression of protests at Egypt’s Tahrir Square using UK-made Chemring teargas to military support of Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians.

Britain also has close ties with Saudia Arabia, a regime which beheads citizens, locks up bloggers and has been pummelling Yemen with UK-manufactured jets. Moreover, the quiet resumption of ties between London and Cairo saw the sanctioning of arms sales worth over $75 million to the autocratic regime in the first quarter of 2015.

Despite the Foreign Office declaring that Bahrain should have been listed as a ‘country of concern’, the regime remains a priority market for arms sales. Displaying utter contempt for the Bahraini human rights activists languishing in the repressive state’s prisons, UK Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond has been busy shoulder-rubbing with Bahrain’s ruling classes in order to sell them Eurofighters, even as the British government boasts that it has ‘one of the world’s most robust, rigorous and transparent export-licensing systems’.

I asked Muhammad’s opinion on British companies profiting from the misery of Palestinians in the ongoing sales of UK-manufactured arms and technology to Israel.

‘Locals are no longer surprised at the British role in arming Israel. We know the difference between governments and the masses. The people of Britain showed an incomparable empathy with Palestinians during the attack, holding massive demonstrations and doing all they could to help. But we haven’t lost hope for a new objective British government that will stop this lunacy.’

Stop The Arms Fair is hosting an Action Planning Event on 22 August, followed by a week of action that includes workshops, academic conferences, candlelit vigils and demonstrations on environmental and immigration issues.

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