Making a Noise about the Quiet Return of Arms Fairs

After a year of cancellations due to the COVID pandemic, thousands of arms dealers and military representatives from across the world once again travelled to the UK to attend a string of arms fairs in the autumn. Kirsten Bayes from CAAT, was part of supporting the resistance to them and argues that now more than ever we need to highlight the insecurity they breed.

Human beings love to get together in big groups, as anybody who has been to a concert, festival or nightclub understands. With the COVID pandemic, this became much less safe, and for over a year events of all kinds were put on hold. This even included gatherings associated with the trade in weapons: arms fairs.

They were not missed much, and their creeping return in the autumn of this year would have gone unremarked, without the determined efforts of campaigners to get the word out.

Keeping a Low Profile

Even in normal times, arms fairs work hard to conceal what they are. Hidden behind acronyms like DSEI, 3CDSE, or DPRTE and held in hangar-like venues in Farnborough or London’s Docklands, many people have no idea they are even happening. Passers-by may glimpse visitors in military uniforms in a taxi, or maybe see a low-loader with an armoured vehicle rolling past. The larger fairs may lead to roads and walkways being sealed off.

But mostly, they have a low profile: the venues hosting them often don’t include them on their listings, and to get a ticket you need to be part of the club; if your name’s not down, you’re not coming in. If you are a nosy journalist, forget it.

Yet these fairs are an important part of the global arms industry, which spawns conflict, oppression and corruption around the world. The larger ones bring together tens of thousands of buyers, government ministers, senior military officials, and arms companies.

The red carpet is rolled out for delegations from human rights -abusing countries. And we know that the involvement of a country in armed conflict is no barrier to arms sales: quite the opposite. This is what led to the shameful spectacle of Defence Secretary Ben Wallace acting as tour guide to a gaggle of Saudi officials at DSEI 2021 in September – this, despite Saudi Arabia’s continual aggression and killing of civilians in the six-year-long Yemen war.

A visible and audible challenge

Campaigners were not slow to respond to the return of the arms fairs, whether with massive street marches in Liverpool, repeated blockades in London, banner drops and brass bands in Malvern or train station “greetings” and noisy demonstrations in Farnborough. Wherever there was an arms fair, there were people telling it no, and finding novel, creative ways to do it.

They were saying that the showgrounds, conference centres and exhibition halls should be used for better purposes. That they should be for farmers, not fighters; for music, not mayhem.

Direct action was also a big part of the resistance to these fairs, as it has been been in past years, whether super-gluing each other to the road, using fake blood to make areas hard to walk through, rooftop occupations and banner drops, lock-ons to vehicles, or the use of equipment like tripods. 

It is worrying that draconian provisions against this form of protest have been added at a late stage to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill currently going through Parliament. Combined with other measures in the bill, including changes to trespass laws and the law around “static” protests (essentially moving to criminalise making noise while holding a sign), these measures together will have a chilling effect on protest and on unheard, marginalised communities.

Although the UK Government might wish otherwise, the UK remains a democracy. Protest remains an important part of how government is held to account and how positive change happens. It is notable that the very weapons used to drive protesters from the streets in despotic regimes are on sale at arms fairs in the UK, and illegal torture equipment has repeatedly been found to be on sale at DSEI. Arms fairs are the absolute antithesis of democracy and freedom of expression.

No security through weapons trade

In a time when climate change and pandemic are the clear dangers to humanity, bringing arms traders from around the world together to plot the next wave of destruction is beyond dangerous. It shows how out of touch our leaders have become, and how little security their policies offer.

It is time we as a society took the effort we put into selling destruction around the world into creating solutions that help us farm, work, raise families, pursue leisure and deal with the climate and health crises that face us. Stop the arms fairs!


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


Image Credit: Campaign Against Arms Trade.