The UK’s arms sales to human rights abusers

The Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair is taking place in London this week. The 2021 DSEI event demonstrates the need for a complete reassessment and overhaul of the UK government’s support for the UK arms industry, similar to that of 2007/2008 when the Defence Export Services Organisation was shut down.

The DSEI arms fair is billed as one of the world’s largest arms fairs.  It will host 1,600 exhibitors and admit 30,000 people through the doors of the Excel Centre in London. The UK government welcomes to DSEI military officers and other officials from countries that suppress democracy and have a history of human rights abuses. This year the government has provided VIP visas to delegations from: –

Algeria Bahrain
Columbia Israel
Kazakhstan Oman
Pakistan Philippines
Saudi Arabia Turkey
United Arab Emirates Uzbekistan

Several of these countries are perpetuating civil conflict or feature on the UK government’s list of human rights priority countries. 

For example, in 2019 Dominic Raab suspended new export licences to Turkey in response to its actions in Northern Syria against the Kurds. Yet Turkey has a ‘national pavilion’ at DSEI.

The High Court is due to hear a legal challenge to UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia following its repeated bombing of civilian targets in Yemen leading to huge loss of life. This is the second such challenge in as many years. The UK Government’s argument that these repeated ‘isolated incidents’ do not form a pattern was rejected by the High Court in 2019.  Export licences were suspended at the time but have since resumed. Saudi arms buyers will receive a particularly warm welcome at DSEI as Saudi Arabia is the UK’s largest arms export market making up some 40% of UK arms exports.

The UK government’s 2019 human rights and democracy report notes that in 2018 a UN Commission of Inquiry reported on alleged violations during the demonstrations in Gaza. The Commission concluded there were grounds to believe that in 187 of the 189 fatalities of protestors, the use of live ammunition by Israeli security forces was unlawful. The UK government called for investigations into excessive use of force in Gaza and the West Bank. Yet some of the several Israeli exhibitors invited to DSEI boast in the 2021 exhibition guide that their products benefit from combat-proven experience.

The Campaign Against the Arms Trade is helping to organise protest against DSEI and also against local arms fairs in other parts of the UK. In 2020, an Arms Fair was stopped by Liverpool City Council although it is now re-scheduled to be held from 11 October 2021 (see here).

Arms exports are secretive and frequently corrupting. But for the government the allure of arms sales is strong. Tax-payers money is invested in supporting DSEI and the speaker programme always features government ministers and top UK military officials. The disproportionate support for arms exports through the DTI’s UK Defence & Security Exports costs us millions every year. It comes at the expense of support to other export sectors (see table on page 29) and needs to be brought to an end. The DSEI arms fair with its worrying cohort of military ‘VIPs’ demonstrates this only too well.



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