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Twickenham Arms Fair

March 4, 2024 at 3:35 pm

Protests at Twickenham arms fair on 22 January 2024, UK

Twickenham Rugby Stadium, renowned for its historic ties to rugby, once again finds itself at the centre of a contentious debate far removed from the sports world. It hosted the International Armoured Vehicles Fair for the third consecutive year from 22-25 January, 2024. The weapons expo boasts about being the largest globally, hosting over 80 speakers, attracting more than 150 groups, and welcoming upwards of 950 attendees from over 40 nations. Attending organisations include major defence companies like BAE Systems, Elbit Systems and Thales, all of which are known for their role in the global arms trade and that have been heavily criticised for profiting from conflicts and supplying weapons to regions embroiled in human rights controversies, including Israel’s war in Gaza and various conflicts in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen and beyond.

The Fair has not only been a showcase for military advancements but has also drawn protests. The Richmond & Kingston Palestine Solidarity Campaign (RKPSC), an active group advocating for Palestinian rights, organised its third annual protest against the Arms Fair on 22 January, 2024. This protest saw an increased turnout, with participants from across London joining together to urge the Rugby Football Union to reconsider its stance on hosting Arms Fairs.

Numerous signs and banners at the demonstration demanded a halt to the ongoing genocide in Gaza by Israel, with some explicitly targeting Twickenham, advocating for fairness and condemning the rugby governing body’s endorsement of violence. At the heart of the protest was a prominent banner labelled “Merchants of Death”, listing firms participating in the arms exhibition and depicting them with caricatures of arms traders profiting immensely from conflict.

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Despite these efforts, the controversy continues, with the very same Stadium deciding to host the International Military Helicopter conference from 27-29 February, 2024, sponsored by other significant arms companies like Leonardo, Lockheed Martin (Sikorsky) and Boeing. These companies are all implicated in supplying military equipment used by Israeli forces in Gaza, including targeting systems and warplanes, further fuelling the debate on the ethical considerations of such events.

The most recent protest, organised by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) alongside the RKPSC, occurred on 27 February, 2024 outside Twickenham Stadium. RKPSC told MEMO: “What is this lunacy where the average Joe public has to take to the streets in the bitterly cold to protest against the most basic of human rights, the most basic of ideologies?”

“The total number of children killed, so far, is the equivalent of 500 fifteen-a-side rugby teams.”

They revealed that over 13,000 e-letters have been sent to Twickenham Stadium, so far, and that at least 3,000 local residents have signed a petition objecting to the Arms Fair.

Undeterred by these actions, a spokesperson for Twickenham Stadium asserted: “We host many successful private events throughout the year at Twickenham Stadium. As a host, we are politically neutral and our main priority is to ensure that all events are safe and secure for both clients and local residents.”

It is essential to recognise that the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign and their activism is not merely a response to the event itself, but is deeply rooted in a broader condemnation of the UK’s arms trade policies and their implications for human rights globally. Indeed, a report published by CAAT reveals significant public opposition to the UK’s arms trade, extending beyond the protests at Twickenham Stadium. The campaign against the Telford Arms Fair on 2 November, 2023, for instance, which was formerly held in Malvern under another name until resistance from local activists pushed it out, demonstrates the importance of widespread grassroots activism against the arms trade within the UK.

Legal challenges, such as those initiated by Palestinian human rights organisation, Al Haq, and the UK-based Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), aim to hold the UK government accountable for its role in arming Israel, based on grave breaches of international law. Director of GLAN, Gearóid Ó Cuinn, urged British officials to reconsider their agreements with Elbit and any other weapons suppliers: “The International Court of Justice has found there to be a real and imminent risk of genocide in Gaza.

“The UK is legally required to prevent genocide and ought to immediately halt weapons exports to Israel and, furthermore, make a legal assessment of all contracts with arms exporters who may be complicit in aiding and abetting atrocity crimes.”

To understand the significance of these findings, it is essential to consider the UK’s role in the international arms trade. Between 2018 and 2022, the UK government approved single export licenses to Israel valued at £146 million, including components for combat aircraft and military head-up/down displays. However, this figure most likely under-represents the total value of UK arms sales to Israel due to the widespread use of open licenses which, importantly, have no limits on export quantities or values. Notably, UK contributions to the US F-35 stealth fighter jet program, for which Israel is one of the main customers, are covered by an Open General Export Licence (OGEL), further underscoring the UK’s significant role in arming Israel.

Samuel Sweek, a spokesperson for Peace and Justice Project, a UK-based campaign group founded by former Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, told openDemocracy: “Awarding contracts to Israeli arms manufacturers such as Elbit, whose products are being used in the genocidal destruction of Gaza, shows an unrepentant and reprehensible attitude at the top levels of the British government.”

Twickenham Stadium’s recent role as a venue for Arms Fairs underscores a broader discussion on the responsibilities of event venues, the ethical considerations of the arms trade and the ongoing struggle for Palestinian rights. The protests at Twickenham serve as a poignant reminder of the global nature of these issues, bringing international conflicts to the doorstep of local communities and challenging individuals and organisations to reconsider their roles in these complex dynamics.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.