London, United Kingdom – A small, imposing flotilla of warships watches over the city’s docklands as tens of thousands of attendees arrive in their droves for London’s most controversial event of the year, the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI), one of the world’s largest arms fairs.
The trade show takes places every two years and this edition celebrates its 20th anniversary with its biggest event yet, drawing more than 1,600 exhibitors and 70 countries to the cavernous ExCel conference space for three days of deal-making, keynote speeches and hardware demos.
On show this week is the latest in cutting-edge military technology – ranging from Swedish stealth submarines to US next-generation automatic rifles and autonomous battlefield vehicles. The world’s top 10 arms manufacturers, including Raytheon, BAE Systems and Airbus will all be exhibiting, and delegations will be present from many countries accused of serial human rights abuses including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and DSEI partners the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The event is supported by the UK government and is a key part of the country’s arms export strategy, which tallied sales of 14 billion pounds ($17bn) last year, 80 percent of which came from purchases by military allies in the Middle East, chiefly Saudi Arabia.
Several senior government figures are scheduled to speak at the DSEI, including UK defence minister Ben Wallace and international trade secretary Liz Truss.
The arms fair takes place just two and a half months after the British Supreme Court ruled that arms sales to Saudi Arabia were illegal due to the kingdom’s indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Yemen. The British government is contesting the ruling, which prohibits it from issuing any further export licences to its key military ally.
The event has faced trenchant criticism from human rights groups, senior politicians and anti-war campaigners who allege that it glorifies war and grants military and political benefits to countries committing severe human rights violations.
“The DSEI is going to bring a lot of the most brutal, repressive and authoritarian regimes in the world to London and put them under one roof with all the world’s biggest arms companies,” said Andrew Smith, a spokesperson for Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT).
“The only item on the agenda for the week is to sell as many weapons as possible. The deals which are being negotiated in London this week could do a great deal of damage around the world.”
London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan sharply criticised the arms fair in a letter to its organisers and said he would try his utmost to prevent it from returning.
“London is a global city, which is home to individuals who have fled conflict and suffered as a consequence of arms and weapons like those exhibited at DSEI,” he wrote.
“In order to represent Londoners’ interests, I will take any opportunity available to prevent this event from taking place at the Royal Docks in future years.”
In response, event organisers highlight the DSEI’s beneficial impact on British jobs and international trade.
“The event serves only the interests of the legitimate defence and security industry, which is the most highly and tightly regulated in the world,” responded DSEI event director Grant Burgham.
Inspectors from several government departments will attend to ensure that exhibitors adhere to domestic and international laws, which have been ignored in the past. Two companies were removed in 2013 after displaying illegal leg irons and electric shock batons.
A government spokesperson told Al Jazeera that all foreign governments must pass a “stringent process of scrutiny and approval” that includes an examination of their respect for human rights.
“The government takes its export responsibilities very seriously and operates one of the most robust control regimes in the world,” they added.
However, eight nations the British Foreign Office has classed as “human rights priority countries” will send delegations: Bahrain, Bangladesh, Colombia, Egypt, Israel, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan.
Elbit Systems, whose “battle-proven” weaponry has been deployed in Gaza, will be exhibiting alongside more than a dozen other Israeli arms companies.
We think that police time could be better spent dealing with real crimes rather than with people peacefully blockading a road to try to stop an arms fair selling weapons of death
Amnesty International, which was denied access to this year’s event to monitor exhibitors, released a report to coincide with the mammoth event that questioned the commitment of major arms companies to ensuring their weapons were not used unlawfully or to violate human rights and humanitarian law.
None of the suppliers of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen it contacted for the report had publicly available information about due diligence on human rights, nor had they adequately addressed claims that their weapons were being used to commit atrocities, Amnesty said.
DSEI also refused press accreditation for at least two British journalists attempting to cover the event, prompting criticism from the Index on Censorship and the UK’s National Union of Journalists, which branded their decision “a sinister breach of press freedom”.
Demonstrations and protests took place on site every day of the past week as anti-war activists, local residents, LGBT+ organisations and faith groups attempted to obstruct trucks as they delivered jet fighters, helicopters and small arms to the conference centre. London’s metropolitan police arrested more than 100 people for blocking roads and trespassing near the ExCel centre, while in South London an “Art the Arms Fair” exhibition aims to raise money for CAAT and has attracted donations from internationally renowned artists Anish Kapoor, Hito Steyerl and Shepard Fairey.
“War and the arms trade, which are making profits from killing, are completely anathema to the idea that everyone has some value that is precious and should be preserved,” said Oliver Robertson, head of Witness and Worship for Quakers in Britain.
Demonstrating alongside a multi-faith delegation of Muslims, Hare Krishnas and fellow Quakers, Robertson took part in a sit-in worship last week. Their silence was soon broken by a police officer threatening to arrest worshippers if they continued to block the path of trucks.
“We don’t think that arms fairs and promoting the sales of weapons are an ethical or humane thing to do,” said Robertson.
“We don’t think our conference centres and our government in this country should be supporting and enabling them and we think that police time could be better spent dealing with real crimes rather than with people peacefully blockading a road to try to stop an arms fair selling weapons of death.”