As a mathematician, I have long been aware of Reed Elsevier as a publisher of academic journals. It has come as a shock to learn that Reed also organises arms fairs.
Through their subsidiary companies, Reed Exhibitions and Spearhead Exhibitions, they are responsible for organising some of the biggest arms fairs in the world including the biennial DSEi arms fair in London.
In 2005 hundreds of protestors gathered in London’s docklands area to express their outrage at what goes on at DSEi. And their outrage is certainly warranted. The list of invitees to DSEi 2005 included seven of the twenty countries on the UK Foreign Office’s list of regimes which commit the most severe abuses of human rights. Such notorious regimes as Indonesia and Colombia were amongst those present. Picture the delights that they were being sold: small arms (responsible for 500,000 deaths every year), torture equipment (including leg irons, stun guns and stun batons), cluster bombs, the list goes on...
The sale of cluster bombs in particular brought a storm of criticism from the public. Human Rights Watch estimates that cluster bombs were responsible for more civilian casualties during the invasion of Iraq than any other military tactic. The public outcry at their sale at DSEi resulted in Reed’s company secretary rushing out a statement that “there were no cluster bombs at DSEi. They were not displayed and not offered for sale…”
But they were. It was subsequently revealed that p.182 of DSEi’s official catalogue openly listed components for “aircraft deployed cluster bombs” amongst the products on offer. This page is missing, along with a bunch of others, in the copy of the catalogue on DSEi’s website: an embarrassing reprographical error for a publishing company like Reed Elsevier! And if you wanted more than just cluster bomb components you could always speak to representatives from the 14 cluster bomb manufacturers who attended DSEi and who would happily flog you the whole bomb.
Reed’s appalling activities in this area have attracted the wrath of a number of different groups. Because of Reed’s “other role” as a publishing house, their services are used by many people for whom the arms trade is anathema. In September 2005 the editorial board of The Lancet, arguably the world’s most prestigious medical journal and one which is published by Reed, issued a scathing condemnation of Reed Elsevier’s role in the global arms trade. They called on the company “to divest itself of all business interests that threaten human, and especially civilian, health and well-being.”
Then on 2nd March, 2006, on the eve of the London Book Fair, also organised by Reed, thirteen internationally renowned writers – including 2 Nobel Prize winners and 6 winners of the Man Booker prize – issued a public letter criticising the company’s arms fairs. The writers included AS Byatt, JM Coetzee and Ian McEwan.
One year on and another group of professionals is preparing to make known their revulsion at Reed Elsevier’s activities. Reed is one of the largest publishers of academic journals in the world and in this capacity Reed’s services are used in universities around the world. Now 140 academics have signed an open letter to Reed Elsevier in which they call on Reed to cease all involvement in arms fairs. In particular they state that Reed’s involvement in the arms trade “is entirely at odds with the ethical and social obligations we have to promote the beneficial applications of our work and prevent its misuse, to anticipate and evaluate the possible unintended consequences of scientific and technological developments, and to consider at all times the moral responsibility we carry for our work.”
The letter is signed by some of the most respected minds in academia, united by their disgust at Reed’s participation in the arms trade. One of them, Prof Michael Atiyah, one of the greatest mathematicians of the last hundred years, recently commented that "science and technology offer enormous opportunities for the betterment of mankind. Unfortunately these potential benefits are overshadowed by the exploitation of science for military ends.”
Professor Atiyah’s words echo sentiments of Albert Einstein expressed some seventy years earlier: “Concern for man himself and his fate must always be the chief interest of all technical endeavours... in order that the creations of our mind shall be a blessing and not a curse to mankind.”
Reed Elsevier is effectively exploiting the respectable and worthwhile work of academics to mask its sinister and deadly role in the global arms trade. This exploitation is indeed a curse for millions of victims of the arms trade the world over. As this week's letter shows, academics will not accept this and are prepared to speak out. It is to be hoped that, sooner or later, Reed Elsevier will get the message.