The largest arms fair in Europe opened in London this week amid criticism from the Catholic bishops of England and Wales.
Bishop Declan Lang of Clifton, chairman of the bishops’ conference department for international affairs, denounced invitations from the Government to eight authoritarian regimes to attend the past week’s Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) 2019 fair at ExCeL in London.
The eight nations have been described by the Foreign Office as “Human Rights Priorities Countries”.
But the Department for International Development does not believe their use of force, or threat of force, either against neighbours or their own populations should disbar them from a place at the event.
Noting the observation of Pope Francis that to speak of peace while promoting the arms trade was an “absurd contradiction”, Bishop Lang launched a highly critical intervention on behalf of the bishops.
“Likewise, it is a contradiction for our Government to speak of promoting human rights while inviting authoritarian regimes to the UK for one of the world’s largest arms fairs,” the bishop said.
“As a nation, we claim to support refugees and oppose persecution, while simultaneously selling weapons to those responsible for killing innocent civilians and driving families from their homes.
“The Government has a moral duty to observe and strengthen its arms control regulations and international obligations, rather than arming the same regimes that it vocally criticises for human rights abuses.”
The comments of Bishop Lang are consistent with the only paragraph in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that deals with the arms trade. It says that public authorities have the right and duty to regulate the production and sale of arms because the use of such weapons affects the common good of nations and the international community.
“The short-term pursuit of private or collective interests cannot legitimate undertakings that promote violence and conflict among nations and compromise the international juridical order,” says the Catechism.
The eight countries to which Bishop Lang alluded include Saudi Arabia, whose bombing of neighbouring Yemen has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and led the Court of Appeal to rule in June that British arms exports to Riyadh must be considered unlawful, pending an inquiry into their use. The Government has granted export licences to the value of £6.2 billion to members of the Saudi-led alliance against Yemen since the conflict began in 2015.
Other countries on the list include Bahrain, Bangladesh, Israel, Pakistan, Colombia, Egypt and Uzbekistan.
The group had included Hong Kong, where British-made tear gas canisters were among those fired to disperse protesters in recent weeks. But Hong Kong officials notified the British Government that they would not be sending a delegation to the event.
The bishops are not the only people to have expressed concern about the arms fair and its invited guests. Before the fair even opened on Tuesday, nearly 100 people were arrested in connection with protests against it.
It was inevitable that protests would continue, encouraged by such figures as Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, who has written to the director of DSEI to say he strongly opposed the city being used as a marketplace for the arms trade.
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