Open letter to UWE Governors requesting independent review of repression against 20 November 2013 ‘UWE arms fair’ protests

2 April 2014

Dear Gillian Camm, Chris Booy, Iain Gray, Dr Martin Hagen, John Laycock, Sandra Forbes, Sonia Mills, Simon Moore, David Lamb, Jocelyn McNulty, Alex Gilkison, Professor Jane Harrington, Professor Graham Upton, Professor John Craven, Graham van der Lely, Charlie Roper, Steve West,

Dear UWE Governors,

Dear UWE Board of Governors,

On 12 March 2014, students of the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) sent an open letter to Steve West [0], UWE’s Vice-Chancellor, demanding that UWE funds, impulses and facilitates a transparent, comprehensive and independent review of the university’s involvement with the ‘UWE arms fair’ (officially known as DPRTE), as well as the ongoing systematic repression of – including UWE’s carelessness regarding protesters’ health and safety as well as its silencing, intimidation and possible direct involvement in the criminalisation of – peaceful protests at UWE’s Frenchay campus on 20 November 2013. The Vice-Chancellor ignored our letter and our subsequent reminders.

We now call UWE governors to support us and we introduce, outline and further justify the same demand for a transparent, comprehensive and independent review to the UWE Board of Governors. In parallel, we will keep campaigning to hold everyone accountable for the repression and to denounce, amongst other things, UWE’s collusion with the military. The next major milestone of this campaign will be a national day of action at UWE Bristol on 14 April 2014 with support from student groups involved with the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) across the country, explicitly focused on the repression within our university, [1] and backing UWE students’ demand for this independent review.

1. DPRTE: an obscene military business and arms fair

In 2012 and 2013, the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) made the backstage decision to rent out the university’s Exhibition and Conference Centre (ECC) to the first two editions of DPRTE [2]: Defence Procurement Research Technology Exportability. DPRTE is a military business and arms fair enabling the UK’s involvement in wars, as well as the highly profitable and controversial business of death. UK military industries are amongst the main proponents [3] and beneficiaries [4] of this business. Recently, such UK companies have once again made the headlines for selling products and services to dictatorships widely known for repressing and torturing their own populations [5,6,7,8]. Such businesses were exhibiting, networking, coordinating, making partnerships and deals, as well as securing further profits in our university on 20 November 2013 as part of what has come to be known as the ‘UWE arms fair’.

DPRTE is key to the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) procurement strategy. It was launched in 2012, along the MoD’s 2012 Equipment Plan [9]. UWE’s ECC, where DPRTE 2012 and 2013 took place, is right next to the MoD’s national procurement centre and the ‘Bristol Business Park’ [10], featuring the highest concentration of military businesses in the South West. DPRTE has been widely promoted by the MoD and the military community as ‘the UK’s leading defence event’ for businesses ‘to gain [their] share of £160 Bn from the MoD’s 10 Year Equipment Plan’ including £11.4 Bn on weapons, £18.5 Bn on combat air, and £35.8 Bn on submarines and nuclear weapons of mass destruction [11]. Companies such as BAE Systems (third largest arms dealer in the world [12]), Babcock (nuclear specialists, involved with the UK submarines carrying ‘Trident’ ballistic nuclear missiles [13]) and ST Kinetics [14] (Singapore-based weapons and ammunition manufacturer, supplier of the MoD [15]) were exhibiting at UWE Bristol as part of DPRTE 2013.

DPRTE exhibitor at UWE Bristol on 20 November 2013

The UK is amongst the biggest exporters of arms in the world [16] and UK companies have made huge profits through the arms trade, often selling to countries officially listed [17] for human rights abuses [18,19]. In July 2013, the Parliament’s Committee on Arms Export Control released a report [20] demonstrating that UK businesses have sold over £12 Bn in arms to ‘the world’s worst dictatorships and human rights abusers’ [21]. A recent example of such deals were the delivery of chemicals ‘that could have been used to make chemical weapons’ to Syria [22]. Such businesses were also exhibiting at UWE Bristol in November 2013. Indeed, DPRTE 2013 exhibitors included Chemring, a British company notorious for supplying tear gas used to repress protesters in the Arab Spring [23] and BAE Systems that recently sold ‘Typhoon’ jets to Bahrain [24].

By renting out the ECC to DPRTE 2013, UWE Bristol also enabled foreign arms dealers such as Raytheon, a US company manufacturing missiles [25,26] as well as crowd-control ‘pain guns’ [27], cluster bombs found in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, and software for managing protests and popular uprisings by tracking activists through their internet communications [28]. In other words, not only does DPRTE explicitly aim at facilitating British exportations (as the UK Trade and Investment [29] [UKTI] stated from DPRTE 2013: ‘UKTI can help you export, just like Lye Cross Farm cheese’ [30]) but the MoD also invites its foreign suppliers to coordinate, in turn making it a platform for facilitating the global military and arms industry.

A comprehensive review should include all the decisions that were made by UWE to support this event: what was decided, when, by who, how and why. In other words, the review should cover not only the decisions to rent out the ECC to DPRTE in 2012 and 2013, but also all related decisions including the involvement of UWE security, the recruitment of additional private security for the day, the decision of UWE VC to get involved in person against the protests, the presence and actions of UWE’s Head of Security, etc.

2. Student protests, and UWE’s actions against the protest and protesters

Unaware of DPRTE until early November 2013, a group of UWE students were informed through anti-arms campaigners that this military business and arms fair was to take place, once again, within our university. Together with other citizens, including activists from Bristol Against the Arms Trade (BAAT), UWE students improvised a last minute campaign culminating with protests at UWE’s Frenchay campus on 19 and 20 November 2013. The only media that observed those protests reported that “students stage[d] ‘impeccable’ protest” [8] and that “Most student observations of the day’s events favoured the humble efforts of the protestors to hold both the ‘arms’ industry and UWE to account for it actions” [31].

Student banner at protests of ‘UWE arms fair’ on 20 November 2013

What still has not been reported, however, is the widespread hostility, threats and attacks from DPRTE participants, UWE security, UWE staff including top management, and the police, on protesters, including many UWE students, sometimes extending to harassment, as well as threatened and actual assaults.
UWE students retrospectively learnt that UWE had hired extra private security for the day and such private security were repeatedly witnessed at the North Gate, prioritising the traffic of careless or threatening DPRTE delegates and exhibitors at the detriment of the safety of protesters, including many current and former UWE students. Moreover, PC Mark Brain, UWE’s ‘community police officer’ also did nothing to protect members of the public including many UWE students from such drivers. Instead, he was witnessed attempting to grab protesters’ banners and pushing protesters around. He then picked on the smallest protester and arrested her claiming assault, a charge that was dropped before the protester left the police station.

As a result of such carelessness and of drivers’ irresponsible behaviour, one UWE student had her foot run over. One other protester was assaulted by a DPRTE participant who caused him a bleeding injury. Steve West [UWE’s Vice-Chancellor], Keith Hicks [UWE’s Director of Marketing & Communications], John Rushforth [UWE’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor], Paul Gough [UWE’s Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic)] and Lucy Wicksteed [UWE’s Head of Executive Support and Project Co-ordinator for the VC] were informed about, and decided to ignore, urgent concerns about the health and safety, as well as the democratic rights of protesters, raised by UWE students [32].

Moreover, even though UWE VC claimed that ‘The conference is an event that is organised by a third party facilitated by the ECC. It is not a University conference’[33], Steve West was seen in person at the protest site, near the ECC, acting against the protests by intimidating protesters with arrest, and then chasing up policemen to carry out his threats. Moreover, Annette Hennessy, UWE’s Head of Security, was seen liaising with the police both on 19 and 20 November, and taking pictures of protesters without their consent and without justification on 20 November.

The extent of the collaboration between UWE and the police remains unknown and will need to be determined by the independent review. However, it is known is that UWE allowed unprecedented numbers of police on campus. It is also known that UWE allowed the police to follow protesters as, and after, the protests were dispersing, as they were walking towards, and then gathering within, a university cafe at the heart of the university, 50 meters away from UWE’s main library. Police interfered with the group as we were debriefing our eventful morning while having lunch, far away from the protest site, more than 500 meters away from any past protests and long after all protests had ceased. Police were present in the cafe space throughout their lunch, a presence that the group considered as outrageous criminalisation and intimidation. UWE also allowed police and one intelligence-gathering police team to gather video evidence on people who had been protesting earlier, as well as many other students and staff who were in the cafe and who seemed completely unaware of what was going on. The intelligence-gathering team then subsequently followed a small group of students and harassed them as they were trying to leave the Frenchay campus [34]. It is also known that, to this date, UWE has still not commented on the police’s actions, let alone denounced them. The police itself was reported stating that the protests were peaceful.

A comprehensive review should include a detailed investigation of the collaboration between UWE and the police, particularly the possible actions UWE took to criminalise, or caused the criminalisation of, UWE students. In particular, it should examine what UWE requested from the police, who made the requests, when, how and why. It should also include what evidence was gathered by Annette Hennessy and for what reasons, whether that or any other evidence collected by UWE staff was shared with the police and, conversely, whether the police shared any data with UWE.

3. UWE’s irresponsible decision and top management’s hypocrisy

On 17 October 2012, UWE’s Vice-Chancellor wrote an opinion piece for the Times Higher Education portraying himself as a “public intellectual” [35]. He suggested that Vice-Chancellors “are wary of ‘politicising’ [their] institutions by taking a strong stance on highly complex and controversial issues ” and claimed to be committed to “engage with difficult, real-world issues”. He further called “vice-chancellors to become more of an independent force for positive social change. We owe it to students, society and future generations to take this [public intellectual] role on”.

One month later, the day of the 2013 ‘UWE arms fair’, in response to the protests, Steve West was quoted in the Bristol Post claiming that “The University takes an entirely responsible approach in its decisions regarding conference bookings at the ECC and in developing links with partners” [36] without giving any argument as to how or why it could be responsible for UWE to provide facilities, to legitimise this event, to facilitate its security (including by contributing to the repression of protests), etc. or to establish partnerships with military and arms industries. In contrast, UWE students argued that it was not only irresponsible to host this obscene event, but particularly inadmissible that it had been allowed to take place on land of an institution that, as UWE VC repeated recently, should be “a seat of learning” [39]. Moreover, it contradicts the university’s claimed commitment to social justice and sustainability [37].

A comprehensive review should examine UWE’s decision to host this military business and arms fair in itself, as well as to commit to partnerships with military organisations and businesses, but also consider them in the context of UWE’s stated ethical commitments, as well as the ethical claims of its top managers.

4. The purpose of universities and UWE’s repression of debate

Since such institutions were established for the first time about one thousand years ago in Europe, academic freedom has been at the core of universities’ definition. Initially allowed to freely govern themselves provided they taught neither atheism nor heresy, intellectual pluralism vastly broadened beyond those early boundaries. Nowadays, universities are recognised as the institutionalised space within contemporary nominally democratic societies for advancing critical reflection and inquiry, debate, and have sometimes been a crucial site of progressive social change [40]. In the UK, the 1963 Robins Report on universities asserted that four main objectives for such institutions, two of them being (a) “the promotion of the general powers of the mind so as to produce not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women” and (b) “to transmit a common culture and common standards of citizenship”.

UWE managers also proclaimed in the media that UWE is fundamentally committed democracy and democratic rights. For example, besides Steve West’s above-mentioned recent opinion piece in the Times Higher Education [35], this is what John Rushforth, UWE’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor, told the Guardian: “”What we’re here to do is encourage people to become citizens and if citizens in a democratic society can’t protest, then there’s something that’s gone wrong” [41]. However, the actions of UWE’s top management prior to, during and since the last UWE arms fair question the sincerity of those claims, as well as UWE’s actual support for democracy.

To this date, UWE has continually ensured that university staff and students do not get any information about this event, and about the related protests. When UWE students staged protests to uncover UWE management’s backstage decision, to raise awareness about this event and to open a debate about the numerous issues that it raised, they were met with intimidation, repression and criminalisation. In one instance, UWE VC even personally intimidated protesters, including UWE students, who were trying to argue why this military business event is irresponsible, a move that symbolises the university’s attempt to stifle the very possibility of debate.

UWE also systematically attempted to mislead the public and to deligitimise protesters. When the university’s newspaper published an article entitled “UWE HOSTS ‘ARMS FAIR’” triggered by UWE students’ planned protest on 13 November 2013, one week before the event, Keith Hicks, UWE’s head of Marketing and Communications, commented: “It is our [UWE’s] policy not to support arms fairs. This is not an arms fair. This is a conference that promotes project management of large procurement projects and supply chain management. The University is also not a sponsor of the conference or involved besides the rental of the space. We would not expect protest at this type of conference and clearly we would hope any protest would be responsible” [42]. Steve West made nearly the same statement to the Bristol Post [43] but he then also conflated “the military and emergency services”, suggesting that “disaster relief work requires us [UWE] to work with the MOD and procurement services” even though no past communication of DPRTE 2013 related to ‘relief work’ and not a single relief organisation was exhibiting at DPRTE 2013.

To this date, still very few students and staff know that the DPRTE military business and arms fair took place on campus twice and that it was protested. Even fewer know that the safety of protesters was threatened, that UWE and UWESU did nothing to address this situation even though they were informed, that protesters were criminalised, etc. A comprehensive review should cover UWE’s failings to address its democratic responsibilities and claims through its communications and silences, as well as its actions and inactions before, during and after the event. The review should also include the policing of protests, taking into account that most of it took place on university (private) land.

5. Collusion of UWE with business and military worlds

UWE students argued that the University’s decision to host this military business fair was not merely obscene; most importantly, it highlights UWE’s increasing collusion with business and military institutions. UWE students argue that the hosting of this military business and arms fair in 2012 and 2013, and their approval of the tripling of tuition fees in 2010, highlight UWE management’s strategy of “prioritising business of any kind, even at the detriment of the physical integrity and the freedom of expression of a handful of students who did their utmost best to air very important points, despite systematic silencing, hostility and even sometimes aggression” [44].

Students also denounced UWE’s strategy of cutting courses, staff and quality of education while furthering a business agenda through large infrastructures which are mostly useless to students and education, such as the planned 20,000 seat ‘UWE stadium’ or the conference centre, where DPRTE 2013 took place.

A comprehensive review should investigate the university’s strategy and entrenched investments with business and military worlds, determine how those influenced the decision to host and support the obscene DPRTE in 2012 and 2013, the repression of related protest and debate to the extent of intimidating students, as well as being careless about protesters’ health and safety. It should also address the extent to which this strategy, and these investments with business and military worlds undermine and compromise the university’s ability to fulfil its democratic role.

6. Attitude of UWE Students’ Union and The Western Eye

UWE Students’ Union (UWESU) broke commitments that had been negotiated with student activists to provide support for the protest, incidentally also breaking more general stated commitments by the Students’ Union (SU) to increase participation and support its members.

Moreover, at midday, UWESU ignored an urgent request from campaigning UWE students to meet the five presidents in person to discuss breaches to our health and safety as well as to our democratic rights. This request was made in person to Hannah Khan, VP Societies and Communication, in front of a large group, after giving her a background of what had happened. It was also emailed to all UWESU presidents. Since then, UWESU has systematically obstructed attempts to hold UWE and UWESU accountable for their actions and inaction on, and since 20 November.

Moreover, the day of the ‘UWE arms fair’, the student newspaper stated: “The Western Eye will be publishing a full review of the day’s events, from both inside and outside the ECC, later this week”. However, it has failed to do so, therefore also contributing to silence student activists. The WesternEye also stifled student activists’ reasons for protesting, narrowing their action into an ‘arms fair’ protest and framing all their articles within a silly definitional debate about whether DPRTE was an arms fair. A comprehensive review should investigate UWESU’s and the WesternEye’s responsibilities and failings.

7. A comprehensive, transparent and independent review

A comprehensive review should include, and systematically follow through, the above-mentioned areas for investigation as well as those other highlighted in the letter sent to UWE VC on 12 March 2014. It should also review relevant best practice and take inputs from ‘experts’, including UWE students involved in DPRTE protests, to support citizenship, enrich democracy and foster progressive social change. Finally, it should make recommendations based on a comparison between best practice, and its investigation into UWE.

A transparent review should:

  • Be widely publicised both within and beyond UWE, and provide clear procedures for people to get involved and provide input,
  • Protect sensitive or confidential data as well as the identity of witnesses,
  • Publicise the process for performing the review,
  • Widely publicise the outcomes of the review.

Given UWE’s actions on the day and subsequently, particularly the direct involvement of UWE VC and UWE’s Head of Security against the protests, as well as UWE’s contempt for protesters’ health and safety and democratic rights, students have no trust in UWE and call for this review to be fully independent from UWE.

Given UWESU’s actions on the day, in particular the fact that UWESU presidents ignored an urgent request to meet in order to discuss the safeguarding of protesters’ security and democratic rights, as well as UWESU’s subsequent obstruction of efforts to hold UWE and UWESU accountable for their actions on 20 November 2013, participating students have no trust in UWESU and call for this review to be fully independent from UWESU.

The independence of the review would then be guaranteed by a panel of experts from across a wide and adequate range of disciplines, selected from within and outside UWE, for their demonstrable commitment to:

  • the importance of intellectual pluralism within universities,
  • the role of universities in advancing progressive social change throughout history,
  • the democratic role of universities within contemporary societies.

We look forward to reading a clear and prompt answer to this demand for a transparent, comprehensive and independent review at your earliest opportunity.

Yours sincerely,
UWE students

[Editorial note: minor edits for clarity, to correct typos and to remove one repetition were made on 22 April 2014]


[0] Better Together (12 March 2014) Open letter to UWE VC requesting independent review of 20 November 2013 protests against military business and arms fair at UWE,

[1] CAAT Universities Network (2014) Events,

[2] Official website of DPRTE:

[3] The Guardian (6 November 2012) David Cameron: UK arms sales to Gulf countries ‘legitimate’,

[4] Wikipedia, World’s largest arms exporters,

[5] The Huffington Post (17 July 2013) UK Sells £12bn Worth Of Arms To World’s Worst Dictatorships And Human Rights Abusers,

[6] The Huffington Post (28 February 2014) Why Is the UK Facilitating Oppression in Bahrain?

[7] RT (22 November 2013) Trading in repression: Activists slam ‘whitewash’ probe into UK-Gulf arms deals,

[8] Channel 4 (17 July 2013) UK approves arms sales to human rights abusers,

[9] UK’s Ministry of Defence (31 January 2013) The defence equipment plan 2012,

[10] Bristol Business Park (retrieved 27 March 2014) Map of the Bristol Business Park,

[11] DSEI intelligence brief (retrieved 27 March 2014) Learn how to gain your share of £160 Bn from the MOD’s 10 Year Equipment Plan,

[12] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (retrieved 27 March 2014) The SIPRI Top 100 arms-producing and military services companies in the world excluding China, 2012,

[13] BBC News (22 May 2012), Trident contracts worth £350m unveiled by MoD,

[14] Defense News (18 May 2012) Singapore Gains Toehold in World Arms Industry,

[15] Marontech communications (21 June 2011) ST Kinetics Completes Delivery Of Warthog to UK Ministry Of Defence,

[16] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (2014) Arms transfers Database,

[17] Foreign & Commonwealth Office (2014) Human rights in Countries of Concern,

[18] The Guardian (13 July 2012) UK arms exports: which countries do British firms sell to, and who buys what?

[19] Campaign Against Arms Trade (2014) UK Arms Export Licences,

[20] UK Parliament (17 July 2013) Scrutiny of Arms Exports and Arms Control (2013) Report,

[21] The Huffington Post (17 July 2013) UK Sells £12bn Worth Of Arms To World’s Worst Dictatorships And Human Rights Abusers,

[22] Sky News (17 July 2013) Britain’s Chemical Sales To Syria Revealed,

[23] The Independent (4 December 2011) British-made tear gas was used on Egypt’s protesters,

[24] The Telegraph (9 August 2013) Britain to sell Typhoon jets to Bahrain, despite human rights record,

[25] Corporate Research Project (2014) Raytheon: Corporate Rap Sheet,

[26] Bristol Against the Arms Trade (2014) Raytheon, MBDA,

[27] Abovetopsecret (14 February 2011) Raytheon offers ‘pain gun’ to troubled India,

[28] The Guardian (10 February 2013) Software that tracks people on social media created by defence firm,

[29] UKTI (2014) About UKTI,

[30] @UKTI Twitter (20 November 2013),

[31] The Western Eye (20 November 2013), Students Stage ‘Impeccable’ Protest,

[32] Better Together (20 November 2013) UWE VC ignores UWE students’ safety concerns and denies request to have a citizens’ inspection (including UWE students) of military business fair; further questions to him,

[33] Email from Steve West to UWE students on 20 November 2013 at 1:29pm

[34] Better Together (20 November 2013), UWE allowed police and one intelligence-gathering ‘FIT’ team to intimidate, harass and gather video evidence on non-protesting students at the very heart of the University,

[35] Times Higher Education (17 October 2013) A leader’s role as public intellectual: approach with care,

[36] Bristol Post (20 November 2013) VIDEO: Protest against ‘arms fair’ conference at UWE Bristol,

[37] UWE Bristol (2013) UWE Bristol Strategy 2020,

[38] The Bristol Post (20 November 2013) VIDEO: Protest against ‘arms fair’ conference at UWE Bristol,

[39] The Western Eye (24 January 2014) Steve West comments on Frenchay security breach,

[40] Anderson, Robert (1998), The ‘Idea of a University’ today, History and Policy,

[41] The Guardian (9 January 2012), Student protesters get evicted by universities,

[42] The Western Eye (13 November 2013) UWE HOSTS ‘ARMS FAIR’,

[43] The Bristol Post (20 November 2013), VIDEO: Protest against ‘arms fair’ conference at UWE Bristol,


[Editorial note: minor edits for clarity, to correct typos, and to remove one repetition in section 3. were made on 22 April 2014]