28 March 2012
World's largest arms fair begins today in London - demonstrators plan a "wave of protests"
Every two years, the world's largest arms fair opens its doors to attendees from around the world. Over four days, Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEi) will play host to over 1,300 exhibitors and 25,000 visitors at the gargantuan Excel Centre in London Docklands. Despite claims by the organisers, Clarion Events, that "much of the equipment on show at DSEi is designed for humanitarian relief and for emergency services,"  it is abundantly clear that the primary purpose of the event is to showcase military and, increasingly, 'security' equipment. The DSEi website notes that visitors will be able to view "the full capability of the defence and security industry," to "see the future of the defence industry," and to "network with every element of the defence supply chain." 
There is significant government involvement in the organisation of DSEi. The event is heavily supported by the Defence and Security Organisation, a subsidiary of the state agency UK Trade and Investment. UKTI DSO, as it is known, "provides specialist export advice and practical assistance" to defence and security exporters.  Civil servants at the department are responsible for inviting delegations to DSEi. In previous years this has included representatives from the governments of Colombia, China, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam - all of which have been identified as "major countries of concern" by the Foreign Office's human rights reports. This year, the list of attendees includes, amongst others, Algeria, Angola, Bahrain, Morocco, Kazakhstan, and the UAE. 
Perhaps unsurprisingly, DSEi has always attracted the attention of protestors. This year a wide variety of groups have organised demonstrations against the event. On Saturday 10th September, a number of individuals manoeuvred kayaks in the river Thames to try and prevent the warship HMS Dauntless reaching the Royal Victoria Dock, where it will be used throughout the week as a venue for receptions and presentations showcasing military technology. A spokesperson for Disarm DSEi, the group behind the action, stated that "It is up to ordinary people to intervene to stop the obscene traffic in arms. DSEi, the world's largest arms fair, must be stopped." 
Similar sentiments are expressed by other groups opposing DSEi. The Stop the Arms Fair coalition has announced a "wave of protests" this week intended to "shut down DSEi." This will include bike blockades, a mass lobby of Parlaiment, pickets of company offices, and "creative actions on the Docklands Light Railway," the means of transport used by many delegates to reach the Excel Centre .
Anti-militarist protests have already had some impact on events leading up to DSEi. Last week, a seminar organised by UKTI DSO (entitled 'Middle East: A vast market for UK defence and security companies') was moved to a secret location following the announcement of a protest by Campaign Against Arms Trade.
…And the police
Moving an event the size of DSEi is not an option for the organisers, who are able to rely upon a large police presence around the ExCel Centre. The cost of the police operation at the site itself frequently runs into the millions of pounds.
In 2009, protests against DSEi focused on banks and other corporations that invest in the arms trade, and the police were notable by their absence. It is likely that the tiny police presence at the protests - which saw buildings attacked and offices invaded by protestors - was due to the hostile media coverage that the Metropolitan Police received following the G20 protests in April 2009.
This year, the policing may not be so light-handed. A ban on all marches and processions has been in place in six London boroughs since 2 September. This includes Newham, where DSEi, and the majority of protests, will take place. The Home Secretary approved the ban following a campaign to prevent a march by the English Defence League in the borough of Tower Hamlets, which has a large Muslim population. 
The EDL marched through London anyway, under heavy police escort, but did not manage to enter Tower Hamlets. The organisers of a march from Westminster to the ExCel Centre have explicitly stated their intention to defy the ban on marches and processions, arguing that "the ban is a serious, disproportionate and unreasonable infringement of Articles 10 (freedom of expression) and 11 (freedom of association) of the European Convention on Human Rights." 
A global issue
It remains to be seen how police will deal with the numerous different protests planned against DSEi, and whether protestors will succeed in their aim of preventing DSEi from taking place. In 2008, the Asia Pacific Defence and Security Exhibition was halted due to "security concerns" following a sustained campaign against the event. The apparently pivotal role of DSEi in the global defence and security network may make it harder for opposition groups to realise their goals, but it seems it also provides them with a powerful motivation to continue. If DSEi returns to London again in 2013, it is innevitable that protestors and the police will accompany it.
 Clarion Events, 'DSEi - the facts'
 DSEi 2011, 'What is DSEi?'
 UK Trade & Investment, 'About UKTI DSO'
 UK Trade & Investment, 'Countries invited to DSEi 2011'
 Disarm DSEi, 'Protestors confront battleship en route to world's largest arms fair'
 Stop the Arms Fair, 'Press release: Wave of Protests Planned in London'
 Home Office, 'Home Secretary agrees march ban'
 Stop the Arms Fair, 'End the Arms Trade! Defend the Right to Protest!'
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