The thin blue line between security, policing and the arms trade

On March 12-14 the quiet English town of Farnborough will play host to the Security & Policing conference and exhibition. This event will bring together some of the world's largest arms companies with some of the worst human rights abusers.

Andrew Smith
5 March 2014

The Security & Policing conference and exhibition is a British Home Office and UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation (UKTI DSO) event for “police, law enforcement and security professionals who are tasked with security, civil protection and National Resilience.” We all care about our security and the type of policing that is done in our name, yet the event itself is shrouded in secrecy. 

The reason for the discretion is supposedly because it allows exhibitors to “display products which would be too sensitive to show in a more open environment.”  For this reason the organisers only allow attendees that they say are “serious about security and are either end users, influencers, specifiers, decision makers or purchasers.” In contrast, journalists and those on the receiving end of policing and security policies are unable to attend. 

Unfortunately, the notionally 'strict' home office entrance criteria do not prevent invitations being issued to delegations that represent some of most oppressive governments in the world. For example, last year's event was attended by representatives of the regimes in Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. 

It's not just standard policing equipment that will be on sale; visitors will be able to purchase almost anything they like from across the wide range of perfectly legal yet highly destructive weaponry that is available to anyone with deep enough pockets. The 'security' equipment being marketed will include sniper rifles, crowd control equipment and surveillance technology. Far from promoting safety, the show will help to arm repressive regimes with exactly the kind of equipment that has been and is being used to suppress protests and silence opposition in the Middle East and North Africa.

It's not just the guests and the equipment that are a problem; the exhibitors themselves have enabled a long list of human rights violations. BAE's armoured vehicles were used in Bahrain to support the repression of democracy protests. Chemring's weapons, including tear gas, have been turned on protesters in Egypt and Kuwait, and yet it continues to supply repressive regimes across the region. The Gamma Group tried to sell its spyware to Egypt before the revolution and has since been discovered in Indonesia, Bahrain and Turkmenistan. Unfortunately, with over 350 companies in attendance there are many more examples I could highlight. 

The links between the 'security' industry and domestic oppression have always been strong, and turning a blind eye to the blurred line is a central facet of UK foreign policy. The global market for non-lethal weaponry is estimated to be worth $880.5 million in 2013 and is expected to reach $1,146.2 million by 2018. Very worryingly there has been a move towards more authoritarian policing methods in the UK, a problem compounded by the possible introduction of water cannons to the streets of London. 

However, it's not just arms and surveillance equipment that are sold to these regimes, it's also political legitimacy. Security & Policing is supported politically, financially and logistically by the UK government, and the countries that take part do so, in part, because it strengthens their political links and it sends out the signal that the UK supports what they are doing. In its recent report the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said: "Both the government and the opposition in Bahrain view UK defence sales as a signal of British support for the government." 

Not everyone wants to be associated with this. In 2012 Guildford Cathedral, the venue for the event's Gala Dinner, cancelled the booking after Campaign Against Arms Trade raised ethical concerns with the church authorities. We are urging the UK government to follow its example by ending all political, financial and logistical support for events that bring together the biggest arms companies in the world and some of the worst human rights abusers. 

Far from keeping us secure, these events only strengthen the UK's ties to brutal dictatorships and entrench the government's role as a global arms seller. Furthermore, they undermine the UK's political credibility on human rights and strengthen the political and military position of repressive regimes. Most importantly they put weapons and surveillance equipment in the hands of those who should never be allowed anywhere near them and endanger the lives, security and human rights of those living under oppression.

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