Dozens of protesters gathered in front of the Bristol City Hall during a talk by the CEO of QinetiQ (experts in defence, aerospace and security), Leon Quin, last Thursday 9th of October. According to Campaign Against Arms Trade, QinetiQ is the sixth biggest arms company in the UK. The event was organised by the University of the West of England (UWE) as part of the Bristol Distinguished Address Series that happen annually.

Credit: BenGe Photography
Credit: BenGe Photography

Standing outside the main entry of the City Hall, Sue Fox – the head of Corporate Relations and Events at UWE – greeted the 200 students attending the talk. In full sight of the protesters outside the main gate, Ms. Fox said: “I’m aware of why there is opposition.”  Asked whether her opinion is mirrored by any of the UWE governors, Ms. Fox answers: “Speak to the UWE press office.“

The protest challenged UWE’s controversial decision of hosting the CEO of a UK company involved in worldwide arms trade, including selling equipment to the Saudi Ministry of Interior. However, Keith Hicks – a spokesman from UWE press office – lists only few of the markets QinetiQ operates in: “QinetiQ are involved in UK defence and aircraft safety to European space agency.”

Credit: BenGe Photography

“Leon Quinn is here talking about leadership and turning a company around”, says Ms. Fox, with Mr. Hicks adding “This was a leadership lecture on transformation of the organisation – not to do with Arms Trade.”

Credit: BenGe Photography
Credit: BenGe Photography

Many questioned whether a speaker’s corporate and business background should be assessed against the content of the lecture. Mr. Hicks responded, that “the university does consider its speakers. The university believes that a culture of free and open discussion is essential in our role as an academic institution. This culture can only be achieved if all concerned behave with the necessary tolerance and avoid needlessly offensive or provocative action or language.”

“Is this what Bristol wants to see, along its Green City and Cycling City initiatives?”, asked Ruby Szarowicz, member of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. She is one of the many pro-Palestinian supporters gathered on the day, including public organisations and Palestinian solidarity movements of UWE and University of Bristol (UoB). Hours later, Bristol mayor George Fergusson showed his personal support: “I’m with you spiritually.”

This is not the first time UWE has invited speakers from the arms industry. UWE welcomed the CEO of Boeing – one of the largest employers in Bristol and the world’s third biggest arms trader – back in March 2013. Also, Defence Procurement Research, Technology & Exportability (DPRTE) event took place at the ECC in November 2013; it was perceived to be as an ‘arms fair’ by the protesters.

Credit: BenGe Photography
Credit: BenGe Photography

Following campaigning by the student activist group Better Together, The UWE brach of the University and College Union (UCU) has backed their call for an independent enquiry into the events of 20 November 2013. The open letter by Better Together to UWE governors states, that “UWESU has systematically obstructed attempts to hold UWE and UWESU accountable for their actions and inaction on, and since 20 November.”

Keith Hicks added: “The activists’ call for an independent enquiry last November was not supported at the time.”

With limited support from the public or the students, it is unlikely that anti-armament movements in Bristol and the UK will be gaining ground any time soon.

By Ben Gerdziunas

Edited on the 30th October 2014