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How to shut down an arms fair

Kat Hobbs reports on how Australian peace activists shut down three successive arms fairs and why they should serve as an inspiration for activists who want to close DSEI 

Why would someone label peace activists “feral, low-life people that want society to be in a state of near anarchy for their own perverse pleasure?” These were the words of Kevin Foley, then Acting Premier of South Australia, in September 2008.  But it’s no wonder he was feeling bitter. Australian peace activists had just stopped a third arms fair from going ahead. An arms fair that Foley, who wanted to promote South Australia as the “Defence State”, had supported and spent government money on.

The Asia-Pacific Defence and Security Exhibition (APDSE), the Australian equivalent of the British Defence and Security International (DSEI), was cancelled in 2008 after activists threatened to re-stage the huge peace protests which scuppered arms fairs in Australia in 1991 and1986.

The Australian arms fair has parallels with DSEI. Foley’s position was one that David Cameron echoed in early 2011 by taking arms dealers on his “democracy tour” of post-revolution Egypt, and with the UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation (UKTI DSO) co-organising and paying for DSEI, the similarities continue. The Australian success should provide hope and inspiration to peace activists worldwide.

So how did they do it? Ian McIntrye, who was active in the peace movement at the time, remembers some of the diversity of tactics used. “Protests were held outside arms companies and state ministries across the country and huge “Stop AIDEX” banners were dropped from the Westgate Bridge in Melbourne and cranes at Cockatoo Island in Sydney. Alongside these efforts came an enormous lobbying and education campaign run by a myriad of churches, unions and social justice organisations.”

Although many feared they wouldn’t be successful, coalitions and activist groups up and down the country began organising against the arms fair. Groups came together and started small, making websites, posters, and leaflets about their campaign. It snowballed, and large numbers of people organised benefit gigs, public meetings and even an Adelaide Peace Festival. Public pressure to stop the arms fair quickly mounted.

Then, suddenly, campaign in full swing, it was announced in early September that APDSE would be cancelled due to “security concerns”. Foley’s claimed that “feral” activists threatened the fair, but also mentioned were the projected costs of policing and the overwhelming public opposition which the Anti-APDSE campaign had generated. As Ian McIntrye commented: “once more the political and economic costs of holding an arms fair have been shown to outweigh the potential profits, and the peace movement should take heart in a rare victory against militarism.”

It’s easy to lose hope when facing down such huge monsters as the global arms trade. It’s even easier when watching images of pro-democracy protesters coming under fire to remember that a world free of conflict is possible. But the AIDEX story shows that popular protest and people power can, and does, work. As DSEI 2011 looms, it’s a story we’d do well to remember.

Ian McIntrye’s blog on the AIDEX story tells the fuller story.

Iain McIntyre’s latest book, ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: The AIDEX ’91 Story’ can be purchased online from www.foe.org.au/shop 

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