In 2003, the global arms trade was worth around $40 billion. As in any trade, the deals which make up this figure are facilitated by bringing together potential buyers and sellers. It is this role that is fulfilled by the glossy corporate arms bazaar due to take place in London's ExCel Centre from 13-16 September: Defence Systems and Equipment International (DSEi).
Organised by Spearhead Exhibitions, now a subsidiary of information and education giant Reed Elsevier, DSEi does much to keep the wheels of the global arms trade turning. It has been happening biennially since 1999, when the government privatised the Royal Navy and British Army Equipment Exhibition. With over 1,000 exhibitors and 20,000 preapproved visitors expected at this year's event, it is probably now the biggest dedicated arms fair in the world.
Paid for by your taxes
The other major organiser is the government. Direct subsidies for the event amounted to #400,000 in 2003, with additional unknown costs, including the cost of the substantial time devoted to the event by civil servants and army personnel. The £4 million expense of policing the event, which included heavy police violence against non-violent protesters, was also borne by the taxpayer. This is hardly surprising given the government's sustained support for UK arms industry as a whole. CAAT estimated in 2004 that the UK government spends #888 million annually on subsidising arms exports. This includes the value of export credit, underwriting arms sales to ensure that the company doesn't lose out should a country default on its payments. Whilst military goods make up only 2% of UK exports, they attract 25% of the Export Credit Guarantee Department's help. The figure also includes contributions to research and development, use of military and diplomatic personnel and the cost of maintaining the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO), the MoD's arms marketing department. DESO employs 600 civil servants in 18 countries with the sole purpose of helping sell UK arms abroad.
DESO works very closely with Spearhead over DSEi, including issuing invitations to official delegations from other countries. Many of these invitations read like a who's who of human rights abusing regimes. The invitation lists have consistently included Colombia, China, Algeria, Israel and Nigeria, to name a few. In addition, of 18 major armed conflicts raging in 2003, governments involved in 12 of them were invited to shop for weapons at DSEi. The official invitation lists for 2005 are not yet available, but there is no reason to believe that they will exclude anyone who has been before. [see "International Invites" for more on this]
Yet just as European and North American countries dominate the arms trade generally, so will they dominate DSEi. With the biggest budgets, they remain the most significant markets for arms firms. Many of the weapons and equipment used in the attack on Iraq and the continuing occupation will be on display. The big US companies such as Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman, together with European giants including BAE Systems (UK), Thales (France), EADS (Germany, France, Spain) and Finmeccanica (Italy), and hundreds of smaller firms will be pressing the flesh with representatives of the world's armed forces, pushing products ranging from fighter aircraft to small arms.
The 2005 DSEi brochure clearly states that the exhibition "fulfills an important role within the selling process for defence companies". In other words, by organising DSEi, Reed Elsevier and the UK government are directly contributing to the ability of international big business to profit financially from death and suffering around the world. It must be stopped.