More than 100 people have been arrested as they tried to block weapons companies from setting up their stands at the world’s biggest arms fair, which begins this week in London.
Peace activists began a week of blockades of the ExCeL centre in Docklands last Monday to prevent weapons, vehicles and other military equipment from arriving at the biennial Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair.
By Sunday afternoon, after seven days of protests, 102 people had been arrested, mostly for obstructing the highway, the Metropolitan police said.
Many of those who risked arrest to try to stop the arms fair from going ahead said they had done so because they believed that the products on sale at DSEI would be used to commit war crimes.
Angie Zelter, a member of the Trident Ploughshares group, was one of 25 people arrested at the western entrance to the ExCeL centre last Wednesday. She and other activists locked themselves together to block the route into the site.
“I said with my action that selling components of illegal weapons of mass destruction is not done in my name,” Zelter stated. “I consider that nuclear arms deals are part of an ongoing conspiracy to commit a war crime.”
On Tuesday, as members of religious groups gathered for a day of action proclaiming “no faith in war”, Chris Cole from Oxford was one of a group of people that managed to block the path of traffic into the ExCeL centre for several hours by locking themselves together in the road. It was his 54th birthday.
“It’s important sometimes to put your body on the line, so to speak, and to try to stop the normalcy of the arms trade and to publicly stand up and say this should stop,” he said. “We’ve seen in the past that direct action works and this is one way to try to bring an end to the arms trade.”
The Rev Enid Gordon, a Methodist minister from North Shields, who was arrested on Monday, told the Guardian she had not intended to be detained. “I walked in front of the road when I saw a lorry coming, then other people joined,” she said. “The other people left and I found myself the only one there.”
She added: “I just think we shouldn’t be selling weapons to Israel … and particularly to Saudi Arabia. It’s obscene, it’s against God’s will. I feel this [protesting] is more of God’s will.”
Among the expected 34,000 attendees at the DSEI fair, which officially begins on Tuesday, will be delegations from what activists say are some of the world’s most notorious human rights abusing regimes.
According to a parliamentary question tabled by Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Green party and MP for Brighton Pavilion, the government’s Defence and Security Organisation (DSO) has invited representatives of Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan, the Philippines, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Vietnam.
Five government ministers are due to speak at DSEI, including keynote addresses from Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, and Michael Fallon, the defence secretary. Exhibitors include representatives of the world’s 10 biggest arms companies.
“It’s no surprise that so many people have been protesting against this grotesque spectacle,” Lucas told the Guardian. “Over 100 people have been arrested because of their actions but I have no doubt that history will judge kindly those who peacefully put their bodies in the way of an an arms fair which sells weapons to some of the world’s most brutal dictatorships.
“This arms fair really is a dark stain on our country’s already tarnished reputation. It’s time that this festival of violence was shut down for good and the UK engages in peacebuilding rather than trying to cement itself as the world’s weapons dealer.”
Oxfam accused the government of double standards for hosting DSEI in London while at the same time taking part the annual meeting of signatories to the Arms Trade Treaty in Geneva, Switzerland. It made a particular mention of the £3.6bn worth of British weapons sold to Saudi Arabia to carry out its war in Yemen.
“Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, suffering from a borderline famine and hit by the world’s largest cholera epidemic which shows no sign of abating,” Sally Copley, Oxfam GB’s head of campaigns said. “Yet the deaths, the destruction and the misery seem to count for nothing. Since the war began not one licence to export arms to Saudi Arabia has been rejected by the government.
“When you are witness to the suffering in Yemen it is hard to understand or excuse how the UK government talks the talk on arms control while it walks the walk of arms sales.”
Also on Monday, Jeremy Corbyn issued a renewed call to halt UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The Labour leader said Britain was exporting “far too many” arms to countries that abused human rights and that the time had come to “do something about it”.
“I fully appreciate the size and enormity of the arms industry and the need for working with industry to protect those jobs, in some cases by arms-conversion work, but above all we have to look at the consequences of a vast amount of arms sales to Saudi Arabia,” he told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One.
He said that suspending sales to the Saudis would also send a “very important message” to the United States.