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Many of the bombs now maiming and killing civilians in Syria and Yemen began their lives far away from the urban battlefields of the Middle East, in the weapons labs of the West. And many of the deals that provided the weapons used in these bombing campaigns will have been sealed at an arms fair that occurs every two years in London, United Kingdom.
Today is the last day of the 2015 Defence and Security Equipment International exhibition (DSEI), one of the world’s largest arms fairs, and a core part of this lucrative trade. In 2013, global military spending was over US$1,700 billion — over 12 times the US$135 billion spent on official development assistance that year. In many low- and middle-income countries, military spending soaks up a staggeringly large part of national spending: 19 per cent in Pakistan, 14 per cent in Angola, 13 per cent in Colombia and ten per cent in Nigeria, according to World Bank data for 2012.
To find out more about the humanitarian impact of the weapons changing hands in London this week, I spoke to Thomas Nash, director of Article 36, a London-based NGO. He describes the fair as “a stain on the public conscience for the UK”, and calls for countries complicit in arming other nations to take action to protect the refugees now fleeing the wars in which they are used. Last week, the BBC reported that many of the weapons and aircraft used by the Saudi-led coalition to bomb Yemen were supplied by US and UK companies, including US-made cluster bombs, a munition widely condemned for its devastating impact on civilians.
DSEI is organised with financial and logistical support from the UK government’s trade and investment department. The 30,000 people attending the event include 150 government delegations invited by the UK government. Among them are countries responsible for civilian casualties and human rights abuses now and in the recent past: Azerbaijan, Colombia, Egypt, Israel, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, among others.
Nash also spoke about the patchy and inadequate review process for weapons. Unlike the rigorous testing process used to develop drugs, cars and most consumer goods, “there’s virtually no public scrutiny of the process of developing and fielding new weapons”, he says. This lack of scrutiny means new weapons hit the market that can cause widespread devastation to civilian populations. Had proper review processes been in place, Nash says, the introduction of deadly weapons such as armed unmanned drones, anti-personnel mines and cluster bombs might have been avoided.