UK campaigners just won a major legal victory against the world’s arms industry

Old Bailey statue of justice
Emily Apple

Campaigners against one of the largest arms fairs in the world just won a major victory. The activists blocked the road to the arms fair to stop it from setting up. And a judge agreed that their protest was lawful.

Stop DSEI

Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) takes place every two years in East London. The last one took place in September 2017, and over 100 people were arrested trying to stop it from taking place.

In 2017, arms dealers from 56 countries received official invitations to view the wares of 1,600 exhibitors. Nine of the countries invited, including Algeria and Bahrain, had authoritarian regimes. Six, including Saudi Arabia and Columbia, have been listed by the UK as having human rights issues. And a further five countries on the list, such as Ukraine and Pakistan, are currently at war.

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London Mayor Sadiq Khan wants to see the arms fair banned from the capital. But he says he is powerless to stop it. Meanwhile, the government maintained an eerie silence over DSEI, although this is perhaps not surprising. Because the event is supported by the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Trade. And figures show that the UK has made 10 times more out of arms sales to Saudi Arabia than it has given in aid to Yemen.

Meanwhile, the Saudi Arabia-led bombing of Yemen continues. And so do the arms sales. Since 2015, the UK has licensed £3.8bn of arms to the regime.

Protest

The group on trial took part in the No Faith in War day of action. They locked themselves together (to make it harder for the police to move them) via a box with the words “God’s love knows no borders” on the side. According to a press release from Hodge Jones and Allen, the solicitors who acted on behalf of some of the defendants:

All of the defendants had accepted that they had “locked on” in the middle of the road that leads to the Arms Fair. In a symbolic action, the group who were all committed Christians, indicated that they wanted to turn a road that was carrying weapons of destruction into a safe space for prayer for a short time. However, all were arrested after a matter of minutes by the police.

Chris Cole, one of the defendants, told The Canary:

We argued that given the democratic deficit in relation to the arms fair – the fact that politicians and the police have turned a blind eye to repeated breeches of arms export rules – and in light of the continued arming of Saudi Arabia which is using the weapons unlawfully in Yemen, taking peaceful nonviolent direct action was reasonable in the circumstances. We argued, in short, that our actions were reasonable and that we were exercising our rights under Article 9, 10 and 11 of the ECHR [European Convention on Human Rights]. Nonviolent direct action, we argued, is part of the democratic toolbox.

Freedom of expression

And the judge agreed that the police had not weighed up the protesters’ rights to freedom of expression. Cole continued:

In his judgement, District Judge Angus Hamilton laid out the facts of the case, including a history of breaches of UK law arising at the arms fair, the fact that all defendants had engaged in a variety of other activity to protest the fair in the past,  and that they acted completely nonviolently. The judge found the prosecution had not proved that our actions were unreasonable.

The judge said that he felt if ordinary members of the public were asked if the actions of these defendants obstructing the highway outside the DSEI arms fair was a crime, he would not get an affirmative response.

Solicitor Raj Chada stated:

On the day after the actions of the suffragettes were lauded, it is apt that today’s generation of direct action protestors do not have to wait 100 years to be vindicated. These defendants seek to bring to our attention to the evil of the arms trade – it is to that cause that we must focus.

Vindicated

Speaking to The Canary, Andrew Smith from Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) stated:

This is a very positive verdict and totally vindicates the campaigners… DSEI brings many of the world’s most repressive dictatorships and human rights abusers to London, it’s time for it to be shut down for good.

And Cole had this message for the government and the arms companies:

The growing gulf between the negative views of the general public on the arms trade and those insisting that selling arms is a normal and legitimate business is likely to see growing protests, particularly at the next DSEI arms fair in 2019. Given that the courts are beginning to back the public on this, politicians and arms companies have some serious thinking to do.

A battle ahead

The next DSEI is not due to take place until 2019. But this judgment shows that the arms industry has a battle ahead.

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Featured image via Wikimedia

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