openDemocracyUK: News

Liverpool rises in opposition to arms fair as legal challenge is mounted

Pressure mounts on council to cancel international electronic warfare conference that was blocked from Spanish city last year

Greg Dropkin
10 September 2021, 11.44am
Laser-guided bombs have destroyed lives in Yemen
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Akram Alrasny/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

An arms fair due to be held on the banks of the Mersey has provoked a political storm in Liverpool.

Companies implicated in human rights violations in Afghanistan, Yemen and Gaza are due to speak and exhibit at the Europe 2021 Electronic Warfare conference next month at the city’s council flagship conference centre, Exhibition Centre Liverpool.

After political protest and COVID-19 scuppered the arms fair’s original event planned at the same venue in November last year, organisers tried to move to Seville, Spain, but faced further protest there. Local activists accused the authorities of turning the city into “an accomplice of the death industry”. Seville City Council backed down and cancelled the event, after “assessing the negative impact of being linked to a controversial meeting that has generated social opposition”, the Spanish newspaper Diario de Sevilla reported.

Now the organisers have returned to work with the same Liverpool venue. Liverpool city mayor, Joanne Anderson, asserted in July that: “The council has no power to interfere with bookings taken by ACC Liverpool.” Campaigners have pointed out that the council owns the building and is the sole shareholder of its management company, ACC Liverpool, with the power to appoint and dismiss its directors.

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Last month the council’s chief executive, Tony Reeves, warned of “reputational and commercial risk” if the conference centre cancelled a booking “for no valid reason”.

There is precedent, however. Two previous events at ACC were cancelled – a 2020 tour by homophobic evangelist Franklin Graham and the 2019 Great British Shooting Show, with the latter dropped after the council described overseas trophy hunting as a “deplorable practice”.

Profiting from death

Opposition to the arms fair is strong, with the council also facing a legal challenge from campaigners. Tomorrow, the former labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the actor Maxine Peake, the rapper Lowkey and local Yemeni, Syrian and Palestinian speakers, will address a demonstration called by a coalition of councillors, trade unionists, pensioners, students and communities impacted by war. Demonstrators will march from Liverpool 8 – where many migrant and refugee communities live – to the Metropolitan Cathedral and on to a rally in the city centre.

The Liverpool city councillor Lena Šimić, who grew up in Croatia during the Yugoslav war, warned her fellow councillors at a meeting in July of the “traumatic consequences” of the arms trade on “whole generations of young people”. She told them she had “lost friends both as soldiers and innocent civilians… Wars don’t just stop; the effects go on… Profits from weapons are made when those weapons are successful, when they do what they were made to do, destroy and kill. These are profits made from deaths of people and destruction of the environment.”

She urged colleagues to “make sure this kind of weapons trading finds it difficult and shameful to continue its business” and push ACC to cancel the event; “It shouldn’t happen in Liverpool; it shouldn’t happen anywhere.”

Šimić and three other Labour councillors defied the Labour whip and backed a call for “a comprehensive review of all options available to the council with a view to having this event cancelled”. But the motion, initiated by the Green party councillor Lawrence Brown, was defeated.

The conference is being arranged by the Association of Old Crows, an organisation named after the ‘old crows’ term used to describe electronic warfare that disrupted enemy communications during the Second World War.

Present will be similar companies that take part in the DSEI arms fair, set to take place again at London’s Excel Centre next week, despite massive protests and mayoral opposition. Five of them – Raytheon, Leonardo, L3Harris, Rohde & Schwarz and Teledynesupply components for the MQ-9 Reaper drone, used in Afghanistan for what the US calls targeted assassinations.

On 26 August, ten civilians from one family, including children, were slaughtered by a drone strike. The nature of war zones makes it hard to independently verify manufacturers of components involved in strikes on civilians, but the MQ-9 Reaper drone has been used throughout the Afghan war, including in recent strikes, and has been used in strikes on civilians.

Amnesty accused weapons manufacturers of “an alarming indifference to the human cost of their business” and potentially, “complicity in war crimes”

Raytheon is the world’s fourth biggest arms company, with 180,000 employees and revenue of $56.58bn. It holds a $2bn US contract for nuclear armed cruise missiles. It also makes laser-guided Paveway bombs, used in Saudi-UAE attacks on Yemen, as reported by Human Rights Watch and detailed in a dossier by the Yemeni organisation, Mwatana for Human Rights, nominated for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize.

The dossier explains: “At 8am on Tuesday, 20 September, 2016, the Saudi/UAE-led coalition dropped a US-made GBU-12 bomb on a pick-up truck full of children and women in the agricultural area of Al-Awlah valley... Fifteen women and children from the same extended family set off for Al-Awlah valley to collect animal feed and grain. Hamdah Taghin, 45, was behind the wheel of her husband’s 1983 pick-up truck... Just as the family were reaching their destination, coalition jets struck the truck with a single bomb that dismembered and shredded the bodies of all 15 people on board. According to family members of the victims, there were no Houthis, military vehicles, or military sites in the area of the attack – just farms, where mostly women and children laboured in the harvest season.”

Codes on bomb fragments at the scene showed that the Paveway was made by Raytheon in June 2016, after numerous unlawful strikes on civilians had already been reported. Similar findings by Amnesty prompted the organisation to accuse Raytheon and others of “an alarming indifference to the human cost of their business” and potentially, “complicity in war crimes”.

Raytheon is listed to speak at the arms fair on the topic, ‘Air Dominance – Survivability & Lethality Enablers’. Meanwhile, Textron, which will be exhibiting at the fair, has supplied the Saudis with cluster bombs.

Haifa Alkhanshali, a student in Liverpool, told openDemocracy she felt “a huge sense of responsibility” for her family in Yemen, who are suffering the effects of “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis”. She urged Liverpool City Council to hear the voices of the Yemeni community in Liverpool – one of Yemen’s longest established in the UK – adding: “The arms fair that is coming to Liverpool to sell to companies which supply the Saudi military must be stopped. I refuse to believe that my city would allow this to happen.”

Alongside a dozen international suppliers of the Israeli military, Israeli arms companies due to attend the fair include the drone manufacturer Elbit Systems and ELTA, a division of state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), which supply the drones used by Israel in Gaza, where most casualties are civilian. Soon after an Israeli attack on Gaza in May, the Sunday Mail revealed an ELTA bid to run a road traffic monitoring system in Scotland.

‘A city that fights injustice’

The impact of the “electronic warfare” promoted by the Liverpool fair goes beyond drone strikes. Kirsten Bayes of Campaign Against the Arms Trade told openDemocracy that as well as “guiding missiles to their targets... it is also about blocking phones, radios, GPS and the internet – making emergency services and aid deliveries impossible. It’s about creating a complete news blackout. It is as much part of modern warfare as bullets and bombs, and just as destructive.”

Haneen Awwad, a student who supports tomorrow’s demonstration, told openDemocracy that the arms fair “doesn’t reflect the values of Liverpool. We are a city that fights injustice… As a Palestinian Scouser who was born and raised in Liverpool, I am completely appalled.” She added that she was “reassured” by the “outrage” in Liverpool – “even though the council doesn’t have our backs, the people of Liverpool do”.

The Liverpool campaigner Mark Jackson, backed by the lawyers at the Public Interest Law Centre, has written to the council warning that if it doesn’t halt the fair by the end of this week – something it says the mayor has the power to do – and institute an ethical policy for ACC, it will face a judicial review.

The ACC Liverpool Group’s chairperson, Max Steinberg, has told the mayor that AOC Europe aims to develop “sophisticated systems used to make the world a safer place”, and that the event is “entirely consistent with the city’s inward investment strategy and is estimated to deliver in the region of £1m in economic impact”. He added that the “reputational impact” of cancelling the event would harm the venue’s “ability to secure business events to the city”.

The former ACC chief executive, Bob Prattey, and three other directors have resigned since February when campaign sources believe the decision to resume the fair was taken.

Today, the band Massive Attack announced that they would be cancelling their long-scheduled show at the venue in an act of solidarity with the campaigners, and the National Union of Students warned that they will not hold their events at the conference centre in future unless the arms fair is cancelled, joining similar warnings from the National Education Union, with other unions also considering their position, openDemocracy understands.

Steinberg insisted that there is “no known legal basis to terminate the contract between the ACC Liverpool Group and AOC Europe”. However, the Public Interest Law Centre has pointed out that the European Convention on Human Rights is supposed to guide every aspect of council functioning.

Liverpool City Council will meet on 22 September but at present it has no plans to discuss the conference again. If the arms fair is still planned to take place next month, its opponents are likely to mount further protests.

Liverpool City Council has been approached for comment.

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