The mysterious case of the disappearing cluster bombs

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For the organisers of Europe's largest arms fair, Reed Elsevier is curiously touchy about any suggestion that it might actually be involved selling arms. Elsevier's latest PR line on Defence Systems and Equipment International, its flagship arms trade event in London's Docklands, is that the 'exhibition' is not about selling arms at all.

Last month, three days before Elsevier's other flagship event, the London Book Fair, thirteen internationally renowned authors issued a public call for Elsevier to end its involvement with the arms trade.

Company secretary Stephen Cowden immediately responded with an indignant letter insisting that

DSEi is not an arms fair, it is a trade exhibition. It is a venue for business and not an event where weapons can be sold or purchased.

We'll leave aside the semantic puzzle of a "business" which does not involve, well, business. But DSEi is quite clearly an event for buying and selling. The event's own brochure speaks for itself:

The world's defence suppliers and their customers meet at DSEi to discuss and conduct business in a central London location....DSEi fulfils an important role within the selling process for defence companies....There are hospitality suites that provide an ideal setting for private discussion and hosted entertainment with existing and potential customers.

Reed Elsevier are particularly squeamish about cluster bombs - the appalling munitions, used in Iraq and Afghanistan, whose scattered bomblets virtually guarantee civilian casualties when used in built-up areas, and can create de-facto minefields. Human Rights Watch estimates that cluster bombs were responsible for more civilian casualties during the invasion of Iraq than any other military tactic, and there are widespread calls for them to be banned, like anti-personnel mines. Although Reed Elsevier don't want to risk losing any business by excluding cluster bomb manufacturers from DSEi, they publicly insisted that cluster bombs were not to upset anyone by being on open display.

So when the authors' public letter condemned DSEi's promotion of weaponry ranging from "tanks to cluster bombs", Elsevier's Stephen Cowden was breathtakingly quick to deny it:
There were no cluster bombs at DSEi. They were not displayed and not offered for sale....Although no international treaty bans them, Reed Exhibitions has taken the decision to ban from display, publication, offer or marketing in any form, all weapons and references to the type of weapons that can loosely be described as cluster bombs.

Nice try Mr Cowden, but no cigar. His exhaustive denial is somewhat undermined by the official catalogue for DSEi 2005, which on page 182 lists components for "aircraft deployed cluster bombs" amongst the products offered by Canadian parachute company International Custom Products (Exhibitor Number 1139). Oddly, though, the page is missing, along with a bunch of others, in the pdf copy of the catalogue on DSEi's website: an embarrassing reprographical error for a publishing company like Elsevier.

And if components weren't enough, you could always just ask one of the 14 cluster bomb manufacturers at DSEi (Lockheed Martin, EADS, Daimler Chrysler, Giat Industries, MBDA, Rhienmetall, RUAG, SAAB, Denel, General Dynamics, L-3 Communications, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and Textron) to discreetly flog you the whole thing. A journalist from The Independent did just this at DSEi 2005, and reported that a manager from South African arms company Denel happily discussed supplying 155mm cluster bombs with him at the event.

Of course the real issue is not cluster bombs - just one of many deadly weapons, from assault rifles to Hellfire missiles, more openly on offer at Elsevier's arms fairs. The real issue is the arms trade free-for-all made possible by arms fairs like DSEi. But if we're going to argue about it, we should at least get our facts straight.

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  • The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) is a UK-based coalition working to reduce and limit arms exports, particularly to oppressive regimes; to countries involved in armed conflict or in regions of tension; and to countries whose social welfare is threatened by military spending.
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