Repressive regimes will be stocking up again at this week's arms fair - and we're footing the bill
On September 11, the defence industry will be commemorating those who died in New York two years ago with a gala dinner in a central London hotel. Here, the world's best weapons makers will be breaking gourmet bread with the world's best weapons buyers, discussing future deals in the safety of a private event, guarded by police lines. The gala dinner is the highlight of Europe's biggest arms fair, Defence Systems and Equipment International (DSEI), a five-day weapons expo held in London's Docklands. Indeed, such is the extent of the event's glitziness that the defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, will be its starring guest speaker.
The gala date, says Alan Sharman, director general of the Defence Manufacturers Association,the organisers, is pure coincidence. Even if it had not been a coincidence, he says, it would not have been an issue, since a weapons expo dinner is no different from a motor or boat show dinner (his examples). You'd only think it a problem, says Sharman, if you had a problem with the arms fair.
Well, OK then, I do have a problem with the arms fair. For a start, with the fact that Britain, under a government allegedly committed to an ethical foreign policy, is playing host to an exhibition selling arms to whichever nation wants to buy them. It doesn't matter how you treat your people, how much buying weapons eats into your country's budget, who you have a conflict with or what you are using those weapons for - if you're able to buy, Britain will open the doors to its arms supermarket for you.
Among the list of nations invited to attend DSEI 2003 are Saudi Arabia, where torture and political arrests remain rife; Kenya, where routine executions and torture take place; Colombia, where last year 4,000 civilians were killed for political motives; and Turkey, where torture in police custody remains widespread. Amnesty International says that the appalling human rights records of these nations "graphically illustrates why there must be end-use monitoring in arms sales, so that there can be real assurance that the UK is not inadvertently supporting internal repression, torture or police brutality overseas".
Also on the list of DSEI invites is Syria, the US-decreed "axis of evil" state supposed to be harbouring chemical weapons. And China has been invited too, even though it is the subject of a partial arms embargo. Britain supplies 20% of the world market in arms, second only to the US. During the 1990s alone, approximately 4 million people were killed in violent conflicts - and civilians made up 90% of these deaths. Join the dots.