It's a Saturday afternoon, and inflatable kayaks are out on the River Thames. But these aren't just any boats- they're paddled by activists who are blocking the path of the HMS Dauntless, a huge warship on its way to dock outside the worlds largest arms fair. As the police chase down the boats, the battleship pulls into the Royal Victoria Dock in East London. This was one of many actions against the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEi) arms fair, and opened a week of creative action. A spokesperson for Disarm DSEi explained their purpose: “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.”
The biannual Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEi) arms fair takes place in the ExCel centre in London, and DSEi 2011 saw the largest protests for several years. Actions spanned the week of the fair, although the focal point was the Day of Action called by the Stop The Arms Fair coalition for the opening day of the fair, September 13th. The fair is co-organised by the UK Trade and Investment Department and Clarion Events, and this year saw oppressive regimes like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia attending as guests of the UK government. In total, this year's invite list of 63 countries included 14 authoritarian regimes. The invite lists are often controversial. A recent report in the British press uncovered evidence that Colonel Gaddaffi's son Khamis (notorious for his command of a particularly violent elite brigade in the Libyan army) had received a personal invite from the British Government for DSEi 2009.
A candle lit vigil of over 100 people took place on the eve of the fair to commemorate the victims of the arms trade. The Day of Action on the 13th began early, when a 12-foot 'Destroy DSEi' banner was hung from two cranes opposite the dock. A critical mass bike ride set off towards ExCel to block the roads, while on the DLR trains and the platforms serving the ExCel centre activists were busy with creative actions. There were die-ins and stunts at the stations, and in one case an Anglican priest began offering 'exorcisms' to arms dealers on their way in to DSEi. Veteran peace activist Chris Cole was arrested for spray-painting 'DSEi kills' and 'stop the arms trade' close to the fair, and various arms company headquarters such as BAE and General Atomics were targeted. The Clarion Events headquarters in Earl Court also became the target of protests.
Both central London and the ExCel centre teemed with actions throughout the day. Campaign Against Arms Trade held a lobby outside parliament before setting off to take direct action at the ExCel centre. The travel routes to and from the fair were full of activists engaging directly with delegates on their way to the arms fair, and activists also linked arms to block the western entrance of the ExCel centre where VIP delegates were attempting to arrive. The LGBT+ group 'Sparkles Not Shrapnel' held a roving protest and 'glittered' the police and dealers alike, while a 'Bubbles Not Bombs' group released giant bubbles near the site of the ExCel centre. The day culminated in a mass protest at the National Gallery, where arms dealers and military VIPs were surprised to be confronted on the way into their networking drinks reception by crowds shouting 'shame on you!' and an enormous banner proclaiming ' National Gallery loves arms dealers'. The Day of Action served as a reminder for all those who profit from death that wherever they went they would meet with opposition- often face-to-face.
As well as a full day of creative action, the rest of DSEi week saw actions from a broad range of groups and individuals. You can find out more about action at DSEi 2011 on the Stop The Arms Fair website. DSEi is widely regarded as the worlds largest arms fair, and DSEi 2011 featured killing technology for use on land, sea, and air, as well as live demonstrations of unmanned drones. This year, DSEi's organisers were further embarrassed by the revelation that cluster bombs were being advertised inside. But DSEi is only one of many arms fairs organised by Clarion Events, and represents sadly only one stop on the international arms fair circuit.
The increasingly international nature of the arms trade relies on events across the world, where military elites can shop in secrecy. Deals are often discussed in private 'networking' rooms at arms fairs and conferences, and there are big profits to be made. Recent revelations about UK weapons sales to violently oppressive regimes serves as a timely reminder of the extent of government support for the arms trade and flies in the face of human rights concerns or pretensions of supporting democracy. The Stop the Arms Fair coalition are now preparing for DSEi 2013, and have plans to call the biggest protests yet. If you'd like to get involved, you can contact the coalition through their website at www.stopthearmsfair.org.uk
To find out more about DSEi and the international arms fair circuit, check the Campaign Against Arms Trade website:
To find out more about the Stop The Arms Fair coalition (including a full list of coalition partners), visit www.stopthearmsfair.org.uk
You can also find the coalition on Facebook or follow us on Twitter!