‘They’ve kept me out, but the question is: what has DSEi got to hide?’ - Oliver Sprague
Amnesty International has expressed alarm after one of its experts was barred from attending a major arms fair being staged in east London this week.
Oliver Sprague, Amnesty UK’s Arms Control Programme Director, was prevented from entering the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEi) event at the ExCel conference centre in Docklands yesterday despite having registered beforehand and despite have attended previous DSEi arms fairs without incident.
In 2009, Mr Sprague was officially invited to give a speech on strengthening arms control regulations at the same fair alongside then Defence Minister Quentin Davies.
On Wednesday Mr Sprague was pulled aside, taken to a “waiting room” and then informed by an unnamed official that he “didn’t meet the criteria for registration”. No other explanation was given but Amnesty suspects event organisers wished to prevent human rights experts from detecting the presence of any illegal activity at the event, which has a chequered history.
DSEi - taking place during 15-18 September - is one of the world’s biggest arms fairs, bringing together some 1,500 arms dealers every two years, with this week’s event advertised as “99% booked”. At past DSEi fairs, campaigners have discovered a variety of illegal torture equipment advertised for sale - including electro-shock stun guns and batons, leg-irons, and belly-, body- and gang-chains. A range of illegal cluster-munition weaponry has also been advertised. In total, Amnesty has identified nine companies that have violated UK law at past DSEi events between 2005 and 2013 (every fair has included at least one illegal incident) and given the large number of exhibitors other illegal activity may have gone undetected.
Despite it having been illegal to advertise or promote the sale of torture equipment in the UK since 2004, not a single company or exhibitor has ever been prosecuted for doing this at DSEi.
Oliver Sprague said:
“Countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Pakistan are given the red-carpet treatment at DSEi, yet we’re shown the door. It’s outrageous and deeply disturbing.
“Every year we’ve monitored the fair and - worryingly enough - every year we've actually found torture or other illegal equipment being advertised for sale.
“The organisers will doubtless be delighted to have avoided headlines about leg-irons or electro-shock batons being offered for sale at DSEi, but the truth is we simply don’t know what horrendous equipment might be advertised for sale at Docklands this year.
“They’ve kept me out, but the question is: what has DSEi got to hide?”
Amnesty is calling on the government to ensure that lax enforcement of existing anti-torture laws ends, and that the law itself is tightened up. Amnesty’s UK Director Kate Allen has written to Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, calling on him to set up a joint-industry, NGO and government stakeholder group to establish how controls can be tightened up. Meanwhile, thousands of Amnesty activists are also contacting Mr Javid by email and letter (see here
Spoof ad campaign
Ahead of this year’s DSEi fair, Amnesty produced a major spoof advertising campaign, which pretended to advertise the fair as an event where unscrupulous countries may have been able to find offers for illegal torture equipment. The ad campaign included large newspaper adverts in the Metro, London Evening Standard and City AM, a 40-second mock online commercial (see here
for details), and numerous “games maker”-style activists with “arms fair” placards, lanyards and leaflets in prime London locations (including King’s Cross and Bank stations). The spoof campaign was billed as “the advertising campaign the government didn’t want you to see.” Since its launch on 14 September, Amnesty’s online commercial has been viewed over 300,000 times, with more than 20,000 people contacting Sajid Javid over the issue.
DSEi and UK government
The DSEi arms fair is heavily supported by the UK government, with the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Trade and Investment both backers of the event. Major UK-based companies like BAE Systems are also important sponsors of the fair.
EU laws even worse than UK ones
It is illegal to buy, sell - or advertise for sale - a range of torture equipment goods in the UK, or to export them from Britain, but under present loopholes in European Union trade regulations it is perfectly lawful for non-UK companies to advertise these elsewhere in the EU and even make arrangements for their sale in most EU countries as long as the goods do not actually enter the EU. Amnesty is campaigning for these loopholes to be closed by the European Union. Since 2006, the EU has had the world’s only regional mechanism (Council Regulation 1236/2005) to prohibit or control the trade of equipment which could be used in torture or capital punishment. However, Amnesty has highlighted serious limitations in the regulation and its patchy implementation by EU countries.
Stop Torture campaign
In May 2014, Amnesty launched a global Stop Torture campaign