02/09/2015 12:24 BST | Updated 02/09/2016 06:59 BST

Disarming DSEI: Arms Dealers And Despots Descend on London


- Copyright, Campaign Against Arms Trade.

It's less than two week until one of the world's biggest arms fairs, Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEI), rolls into London. The biennial event (taking place 15-18 September) will bring thousands of arms companies representatives together with mercenaries, generals and military delegations from some of the worst dictatorships in the world.

The guest list hasn't been released yet, and won't be until the first day, but recent events have seen a whole range of brutal and authoritarian regimes in attendance; including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Libya. Six of the countries in attendance in 2013 were at war at the time, and nine were listed as among those with "the most serious wide-ranging human rights concerns" in the government's own Human Rights and Democracy report.

The companies they met with were every bit as bad. They included BAE Systems, which has a long history of arming dictatorships, MBDA, a missile company that armed Colonel Gaddafi, and Raytheon, whose bombs have been linked to attacks against Palestinians. Despite Israel's brutal attacks on Gaza last summer, it will host a pavilion to market its "battle-tested" weapons.

Unfortunately the organisers of this carnival of the grotesque will be supported every step of the way by the government.

Government ministers will be key to the promotion of DSEI, so will UK Trade & Investment's Defence & Security Organisation (UKTI DSO), a 130 strong government department that exists solely to promote arms exports. It is responsible for coordinating the presence of MoD officials and military personnel, as well as inviting international delegations. At DSEI 2013, civil servants from UKTI DSO held private meetings with military delegations from Oman, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Brunei, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, among others.

We are always hearing about how 'rigorous' and 'robust' the UK's arms export policy is meant to be, but nothing could be further from the truth. The UK routinely arms some of the most oppressive regimes in the world. These arms sales are not just numbers on a spreadsheet, they can have deadly results.

Last summer the then Business Secretary Vince Cable admitted it was likely UK weapons had been used in Israel's attacks on Gaza. More than 2000 people died in the bombings, and yet in the months immediately following the conflict it was business as usual and the arms sales continued unabated. Similarly, at the time of writing, UK weapons are being used in the ongoing Saudi-led bombing of Yemen, with RAF bombs being diverted to Saudi Arabia.

Over recent years UK equipment has been linked to crackdowns and human rights abuses in Hong Kong, Bahrain and Egypt. The reason these allegations have been made public hasn't been because of any sense of openness on the part of the government or the arms companies; it is because of the brave work of journalists and campaigners on the ground.

Unfortunately the UK is unlikely to act on these violations, especially not while it is lobbying the same countries for arms sales. At the end of the day, politics is about choices, you can either stand with those campaigning for human rights and democracy or with those that are oppressing them. You can either stand with those being detained and tortured or with their torturers.

At the heart of the debate on the arms trade is the much wider question about the kind of country we want to live in and the world we want to see. There is a fundamental choice to be made about the values we want to project and practice on the world stage and the kind of society we want to build at home. Do we want a government that continues arming the world, or one that focuses on promoting peace and democracy?

Events like DSEI can never be right or acceptable. Not only do they strengthen the UK's ties to dictatorships and entrench the government's role as a global arms dealer, they also provide credibility and cover for some of the most authoritarian states in the world. Most importantly, they put weapons in the hands of despots and send out the message that the human rights and democracy are of less importance than arms company profits. The choice is simple, you can either support human rights or you can support arms sales, it is impossible to support both.

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.

For more information about how you can take action against DSEI, please visit