Defence Secretary Liam Fox gives strong support to the defence industry at the opening of the UK's DSEi arms fair, which includes delegates from Bahrain.

Man holding a gun, as arms fair opens in London amid protests (getty)

Mr Fox said he was "proud" that the UK is the second biggest defence exporter in the world, at the opening of the arms fair at the ExCel Centre in east London.

Campaigners from the Stop the Arms Fair coalition staged protests against the exhibition and the 14 delegations from countries defined as "authoritarian regimes" by human rights groups.

They include one from Bahrain, whose government was recently accused of shooting at unarmed protesters in February.

The biannual show is expected to attract 20,000 visitors over three days, with 1,200 defence manufacturers showcasing equipment for land, naval, air and security divisions. Delegations from 65 countries have been invited.

Speaking at the opening address of the Defence and Security Equipment International exhibition, the defence secretary highlighted the contribution of the defence industry to the UK economy.

"This British success story is not just about global prime contractors - it is about the small businesses who are world leaders in cutting-edge technologies - they are the lifeblood of the industry," he said.

The defence industry employs over 110,000 people across the whole country and generates more than £22 billion for the UK economy in 2010, according to ADS, the UK's aerospace, defence and security organisation.

Human Rights

Mr Fox also stressed that government action has been taken to tighten restrictions on exports that could go on to be used for repression.

"Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are mandatory considerations for all export licence applications," he said.

"The UK's export licensing regime is amongst the toughest in the world and through this system we will ensure we continue to back responsible exports while upholding our values."

The government talks about countries where civilians are still being killed, as wonderful business opportunities. - Sarah Waldron, Campaign Against Arms Trade

In the wake of the Arab Spring when some countries used ammunition to suppress uprisings, a committee of MPs criticised the government for exports to Libya and Egypt.

The government had revoked arms licences to several countries, but a cross-party Committee on Arms Export Controls said ministers had "misjudged" the risk that weapons could be used for repression.

The countries invited from "authoritarian" regimes, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit are: Algeria, Angola, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Morocco, Nigeria, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Vietnam.

An exhibit at the 2009 DSEi arms fair

"Business as usual" for government policy

Recent events have led to an increase in the numbers of people protesting, Sarah Waldron, Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) campaign co-ordinator told Channel 4 News.

"People are frustrated that that the government armed countries like Libya. We've all seen the effects," she said.

Speaking from the Houses of Parliament, where a few hundred people staged a protest and sang protest songs, Ms Waldron said: "Until February, countries like Libya were a target market. [The government] talks about countries where civilians are still being killed, as wonderful business opportunities.

"We've seen the sort of weapons the UK is prepared to sell being used to kill civilians. Instead of seeing our government change its policy, it's business as usual."

An invitation to this event does not mean that licences will be automatically issued for the goods exhibited. - Foreign Office

A Foreign Office spokesperson said that a review of UK export control policy found that there was no evidence of any misuse of controlled military goods exported from the United Kingdom.

"We are clear that an invitation to this event does not mean that licences will be automatically issued for the goods exhibited," said the spokesperson.

"We will not issue licences where we judge there is a clear risk that the proposed export might provoke or prolong regional or internal conflicts, or which might be used to facilitate internal repression."

Stop the Arms Fair coalition staged a series of planned protests at the ExCel Centre and the Houses of Parliament, including a 'bikes not bombs' cycle ride and a 'die-in' outside the offices of global defence company BAE Systems.