Opponents of the weapons trade are to protest on Tuesday as one of the world’s biggest arms fairs opens in London‘s Docklands.
The biennial Defence and Security Equipment International at the ExCel Centre has attracted hundreds of companies, ranging from the world’s biggest producers of warplanes and missiles to niche hi-tech firms, although exhibitors also include makers of life-saving and medical products.
Delegations from 65 governments have been invited, including Bahrain, a longtime recipient of British arms, whose security forces have recently fired at unarmed demonstrators. Other invited Middle East governments include Iraq, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
India, which may soon overtake Saudi Arabia as Britain’s largest single arms market, is on the guest list, which also features Algeria and Morocco.
Libya, whose arms dealers were guests two years ago, has not been invited, although it can expect to be asked next time when its new government should be in power. China, invited two years ago, is not on the official guestlist this time.
The Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) and other groups are planning a mass lobby of parliament and demonstrations in the Docklands.
ADS, the trade group representing defence, aerospace and arms companies, published a report on Monday saying the sector had a turnover of £22bn in 2010 and exported £9.5bn worth of equipment. It said the arms industry employed 110,000 people.
CAAT said a recent study carried out by the Stockholm International Peace Institute showed the defence and arms industries’ level of subsidy amounted to £700m a year, including export promotion, export credit support and funding for research and development.
However, a cross-party committee of senior backbench MPs said earlier this year that successive governments had allowed British arms supplied to north Africa and the Middle East to be used for internal repression in an apparent breach of official guidelines.
In a stinging report on the approval of sales, including crowd control ammunition, guns and small-arms ammunition to Libya, Bahrain and Egypt, the committee on arms export controls made clear the problem was compounded by the government’s policy of trying to boost weapons sales, notably to countries in the Middle East.
The government must set out «how it intends to reconcile the potential conflict of interest between increased emphasis on promoting arms exports with the staunch upholding of human rights», said the MPs.
«The present government and its predecessor misjudged the risk that arms approved for export to certain authoritarian countries in north Africa and the Middle East might be used for internal repression,» they added.
In a speech on the opening day of the arms fair, Liam Fox, the defence secretary, is expected to call on UK companies to increase their exports of defence equipment and arms. Arms companies say exports are policed by some of the strictest controls in the world.