Last week in London, a diverse crowd of demonstrators, including the city’s mayor, gathered to protest a major military equipment exposition, in what amounted to a showcase of a larger trend of popular dissent against the militarism and political leaders who promote it.
The Defence and Security Equipment International is a biannual arms expo held in London’s Docklands since 2001. DSEI is one of the largest military gear expos in the world, with 42 countries having participated this year despite the pandemic. The United States was well-represented, with American companies occupying 86 stands where manufacturers like Lockheed Martin got a chance to sell arms alongside colleagues from the likes of Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt.
DSEI routinely prompts considerable protests. London’s mayor Sadiq Khan has insisted for years that the expo should be held elsewhere. “For [London] to be used as a marketplace for those who wish to trade in weapons to some countries that contribute to human rights abuses goes completely against our values,” he wrote last month in a letter to DSEI.
DSEI is a luxury pageant in the military world, showcasing the latest weapons suited for cyber, land, naval, and aerospace operations — everything from Leonardo’s helicopters to Raytheon’s space surveillance. The presentation is top notch, with the 2021 expo heavily utilizing virtual and augmented reality .
But the shiny package hides a grisly human rights record. In 2011 DSEI attracted criticism from Amnesty International for selling and advertising torture devices. The expo is fully endorsed by the UK government, but this year, it hosted six nations on the UK’s own list of “human rights priority countries.” In their Torture on Your Doorstep video from 2015, Amnesty lists just some items sold at DSEI: ankle-chaffing leg irons, cluster bombs, and electric stun batons that “cause excruciating pain but leave no trace.”
The UK government, however, remains adamant in its commitment to DSEI. In 2019, as the war in Yemen was raging, officials from Saudi Arabia and the UAE were invited by the UK, despite the fact that the UK court of appeals suspended sale of British weaponry to the Saudis over gross human rights violations. The ban was lifted last year and the UK already signed $1.9 billion of weapons sales to Riyadh.
Perhaps that figure may grow, as the Saudi delegation to DSEI mingled with the UK Defence Secretary on a private dinner. The secretary also gave a keynote speech at the expo, accompanied by other top officials. Jeremy Quin, the British Defense Procurement Minister, boasted of the UK’s commitment to “taking integration between government, industry and academia to the next level,” noting that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has committed “an extra £24 billion to support the Defense budget over the next four years, making a total of £188 billion.”
However, the mood among the demonstrators wasn’t as enthusiastic.
A multitude of groups from the established Campaign Against the Arms Trade to more niche organizations joined to protest DSEI. Dozens camped and literally glued themselves together in front of the expo. Before DSEI even began, protesters blocked tanks and other military vehicles from being driven up. They chained themselves to cars, blocking an entire road in “solidarity with Afghanistan and all those on the receiving end of the international arms trade.” Some protesters managed to get inside the venue and expo workers even joined the demonstrations, setting off smoke grenades next to a Lockheed Martin stand.
More broadly, the DSEI protests served as a microcosm of a wider sentiment not just in the UK but throughout most of Europe. While European leaders routinely urge the United States to maintain its costly commitment to European security via NATO, European people are increasingly turning away from the hyper-militaristic status quo. The popular anti-war sentiment in modern Europe goes back decades: Indeed, while war expos like DSEI and Eurosatory as well as NATO summits and exercises have drawn multitudes of protests for decades, polls have shown over the years that NATO’s Europeans are largely aligned with that mindset.
A 2019 survey of the 14 EU member states found that only in Poland a majority would support joining the United States in a hypothetical war with Russia. The rest favored neutrality, and in Greece and Slovakia, more respondents showed support for Russia than for the United States.
Arms trade in particular is an irksome issue for many. As Campaign Against Arms Trade reported in 2017, 70 percent of Brits opposed the promotion of arms sales to regimes that abuse human rights. More than 60 percent opposed weapons exports to the Saudis, including 58 percent of conservative voters. Saudi Arabia remains the largest buyer of British arms.
Kirsten Bayes, the Local Outreach Coordinator with the Campaign Against Arms Trade, told Responsible Statecraft that the Iraq war was the moment of truth for the British public. “The war hugely undermined any assurances that could be given by the government regarding armed conflicts.” Bayes helped organize six protests against DSEI over the last 10 years.
Across the Channel, European worker movements are also pursuing their traditionally pro-peace stance, for example the Genoese unions that refused to load electricity generators on Saudi warships in 2019 over the war in Yemen.
Especially among young Europeans, the reluctance towards militarism is blossoming. According to the recently published paper from Oxford’s European Studies Centre the top three priorities for young EU citizens are climate change, improving education, and fighting poverty. Only 28 percent of young Europeans believe that “ensuring the EU’s security and defence” should be a priority.
Many protesters at DSEI echoed this anti-war sentiment, saying that the money being poured into defense spending could be used for more pressing issues, like addressing the climate crisis.
“The amount of money spent on the military vs the amount of money spent on solving the climate crisis is hugely unjust,” Talia Woodin, an environmental activist and photographer, told Responsible Statecraft. Speaking of climate change and arms trade, Talia concluded that one can’t “fight one without fighting the other.”
Bayes noted that while the war in Yemen might be easier to ignore due to a science of Western boots on the ground, it doesn’t absolve the UK from moral responsibility. “If your medical centers are bombed, do you really care if the British plane that dropped the bomb was flown by a Saudi or a British pilot? At a certain point it makes no difference.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated.