Merchants of Death, Disrupting ‘business as usual’

At the entrance to the ExCel Centre, in London on 14 September 2021

by Atiaf Alwazir*

On the morning of Tuesday 14 September, I was on the DLR train heading to ExCel Centre in London’s docklands. I traveled to London from Brussels to witness and participate in actions against the Defence & Security Equipment intentional (DSEI) arms fair. The DSEI fair is one of the world’s largest arms fairs, and takes place approximately every two years.

On the train, everywhere I looked I saw people in black or grey suits, and a dark mask. I wondered whether this was just the London work culture, or were they all heading to the same place? The same place where I too was going?

It was eerie to think that they were all casually going to ‘work’ to shop for weapons as though they were shopping for shoes. Weapons that will kill, maim, injure, destroy homes, families and nature. Weapons that make the death of ‘others’ a commodity. I tried not to judge, I tried not to be angry, but I was both, so I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and after about ten minutes, I decided to engage in a dialogue.

I turned to the man sitting on my right and said, “good morning, sir, are you heading to ExCel?” He nodded while continuing to look at his phone.

“For DSEI?” I asked.

He nodded again, while still glued to his phone.

“May I ask why are you going?” I said.

The man looked up at me, “What do you mean?”

“Why are you buying weapons that kill people?”

“its just…business, it’s not personal” his eyebrows arched.

This is the reality of the arms trade. The reality of our economic system that profits off murder and destruction, and calls it ‘business’. We live in a world, where it’s ok for a government to support an exhibit of death. Not only does the UK government help organise the arms far, but it also heavily subsidises and promotes the arms industry. In 2019, the UK invited delegations to DSEI from 67 countries, including countries on its own list of human rights abusers.

We live in a world, where it’s ok for a government to support an exhibit of death. Where 1,700+ arms companies market their lethal wares and surveillance equipment, drones and other tools of repression, to an approximately 36,000 attendees from around the world, including senior officials, industry buyers, both local and international.

Our modern warfare, including ‘new’ technology weapons such as drones terrirorize an entire population making them live in constant fear. There is an assumption that drone strikes have a surgical precision which justify its use as legal and ethical. But a drone strike is far from surgical. It blows up and will indiscriminately kill anyone around. The explosion doesn’t stop and say, “oh wait are you on my list or not?” Assassination from the sky without due process is murder.

But it’s not just about the technology itself, it’s about how these new technologies are used to kill and who they’re used against. Ultimately, they require a human decision on whom to kill, and this human decision is not immune to assumptions and biases. For example, drone operators and policy-makers decide who is targeted and killed, regardless of the drone’s technical capability, and this is often used again those we deem as ‘others’.

Even when the drone doesn’t strike, but simply hovers above there is a feeling of being constantly in surveillance. An entire population deemed suspicious. Millions deemed potential terrorists living in a zone of indistinction between sacrifice and homicide, where they can literally be put to death with impunity.

Innocent until proven guilty, doesn’t apply here, which means the current count for civilian casualties is most likely much higher than reported. But even when civilian casualties are recognised as such, there is no compensation for their destroyed homes or the deaths and injuries of family members.

Why is this acceptable? because our militarised economic systems – just as colonialism – profits from war and violence and the devastation of our planet, especially when it comes to ‘the others’; which is why testing new military equipment on the ‘other’ is deemed acceptable.

Aerial bombardment is a colonial legacy which began 100 years ago. According to Dr. Priya Satia, Professor of International History, just after the Great War, Britain designated a new system of imperial policing, known as “air control” and applied it in Iraq where they first practiced their technologies of bombardment.

Since then, aerial weapons for imperial policing, bombings and exploitation have continued. That’s because racism and racial oppression form the foundation for the militarized economy which could not exist without the presumption that some human lives are worth less than others.

We can do better

At the entrance to the ExCel Centre, Quakers hung a sign that read, “war starts here” as a reminder for all the delegates entering the Centre that the networks and deals done at DSEI will lead to killing and maiming in the UK, in Europe and around the world, for many years to come.

As well as holding space at the main entrance, four women laid on the floor under the rain, and glued their hands together, blocking a part of the road to the entrance of the Centre. They stayed that way for up to seven hours under continuous rain. Behind them stood a row of Quakers and other peace activists forcing delegates to walk through a crowd of protesters shouting “don’t go in”, “why are you engaging in murder?”, “don’t kill children”, or sometimes just a silent nod of request for reflection and a connection of our humanity. Other times they passed through protesters singing songs for peace, or silently worshiping, or reading poetry.

Most delegates avoided eye contact, sped through the maze of protesters, but few stopped to engage in conversation. This is really what it’s about. Engaging in dialogue, asking the hard questions that might stir reflections, and helping people question what they once viewed as normal or business as usual.

It is the fact that people still stand up to these injustices, even when it seems so futile, that gives me hope. We can not give up or else the arms traders win. That’s what they want us to do. While this is only what I witnessed, others had participated in a full day of resistance. Others had participated in a week of action to #StopDSEI from 6th to 17th September with music, art, workshops, vigils, demonstrations and talks on various themes, including “Demilitarise Education”, “Borders, Migration and Anti-Racism”, “Stop Arming Israel”, “a day of solidarity with Afghanistan”, and “climate day of action”.

The death of civilians is unfortunately a part of the normalized use of lethal weapons. Such indiscriminate killing just furthers the cycle of violence, undermines real human security and traumatizes survivors. We, as human beings, know we can do better.

We are,

in fact,

better than this.

*Atiaf Alwazir is Head of Peace Programme at Brussel’s Quaker Council for European Affairs (QCEA)

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