You’d be forgiven for thinking that it was an after-work social event for overzealous, middle-aged wellbeing enthusiasts. An event that promises to ‘power progress’ while providing ‘valuable opportunities for networking’, live-action demonstrations, and the opportunity to explore ‘innovative solutions’, ‘reinforce existing relationships’ and engage with ‘relevant, timely and productive’ topics.
Not so, I’m afraid; if you were looking for avocado superfood smoothies and fitness mums exploring their auras, you’d be very disappointed. Instead, from 14th-17th September, the London Docklands will be transformed into one of the most deadly places in the world, a ‘festival of violence’ as Caroline Lucas put it. Mutating into an exhibition of lethal weaponry and torture devices, the fair will provide a social hub for both perversely proud designers and hungry human rights abusers eager to buy their wares.
The Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) Arms Fair is one of the world’s largest arms fairs, taking place at the London ExCeL Centre every two years. The event, supported by the UK Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Trade, sees the bringing together of 1,600 exhibitors and 30,000 attendees active in the arms industry, including many attending from countries known for their human rights abuses such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Thailand.
As one of the industries that thrives the most on death, destruction and suffering, the arms industry is the most obnoxious and reprehensible manifestation of capitalism and cold human cruelty. The more bullets that are fired and the more wars that continue, the more the industry gains. The more armed drones that fly and haunt the skies, the more the bonuses of its nefarious CEOs grow. As the population in Yemen is starved and bombed and children in Gaza die, the blood money of arms companies and their shareholders is raked in to the tune of billions, with the largest 25 arms companies selling $361 billion worth of arms and services in 2019 alone.
We are far from strangers to the images of pain and despair recorded by photojournalists in the wake of war: snapshots of grisly mutilated bodies, little children washed up on beaches, and blood-stained surfaces that appear occasionally in our newspapers and on our TVs when showing them takes the media’s fancy. These realities are of course hidden by DSEI, who present a highly refined image of respectability – showing off and promoting their killing machines in pretty packages with their exhibitors clothed in Savile Row suits and loathsome smiles. This is taken to extremes in the form of the 2019 DSEI highlights video which rolls slickly on like some sick, grotesque Hollywood movie or video game trailer, eroticising and glorifying the violent implements of war and torture, and entirely camouflaging their lethal reality.
‘ExCel London is 100% committed to tackling the challenges of sustainable development and operating as a responsible corporate entity’, agreeing that ‘businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights and act in accordance with internationally applicable standards, such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights.’ It would be laughable if it wasn’t so sickening.
Just a few months ago the ExCeL Centre was still being used (albeit incredibly unsuccessfully) as an NHS hospital site, intended to save lives (and to boost the power and profits of the private sector). How things have changed. It seems that we are yet again inexcusably plagued by our perpetual blindness, displaying our limitless tendency to care only for those who are in physical proximity to us or directly involved in our lives as we continually ignore the suffering that we are not only complicit in but actively help to cause. How can it be that we allow this arms fair to happen? How can it be that we permit the precursor to the destruction of families, lives and livelihoods to happen in our capital city?
The support of DSEI by the government alludes to the wider problem of the UK’s sustained support of the arms industry, with the UK being the second biggest arms exporter in the world. The problem is set to get even worse. This year the DSEI organisers have shamelessly urged exhibitors to attend the event so that they can take advantage of increased opportunities to sell as a result of the UK government’s commitment to increase its defence budget by £16.5 billion, the largest increase in 30 years. The increase, introduced by the Conservatives and backed by the Labour Party, wrecked and spineless under its current leadership, demonstrates the two-faced nature of the UK: although the government may talk of compassion and a concern for human rights and dignity, again and again they make apparent how hollow this rhetoric is through their support for and upholding of one of the most despicable industries in the world.
All over the globe, people are being forced to flee and suffer as a result of the actions of the arms industry – the willing lackey of destruction. In many cases, the suffering starts in London as bonds are forged and contracts signed between Janus-faced governments and businesspeople. Instead of continuing and expanding our commitment to arms, the UK should use the little international influence that it has to take a stand against this repugnant industry and in solidarity with all those who are victims of war, torture, and violence worldwide. No more can we allow there to be profit in death, no more can we welcome the brutal cronies of the arms industry with open arms, and no more can we allow the power to kill to serve as a currency that can be traded for political gravity and wealth across the world.
Stop the Arms Fair is protesting against DSEI outside the ExCeL Centre between Monday 6th and Friday 17th September 2021 ‘with talks, music, art, workshops, actions and more’ taking place. For more information see their website and Facebook event.
Image Credit: David Mirzoeff/Global Justice Now / CC BY-NC 2.0 via flickr