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UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office issue statement on DU and UN resolution in response to CADU email and letter campaign

The Conventional Arms Control Support Officer for the Security Policy Group of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's International Security Directorate asked ICBUW to post the following statement from the UK Government on our website in order to: "give visitors the opportunity to understand the UK's position on Depleted Uranium Munitions."
26 November 2008 - ICBUW

Below is the standard response from the FCO for those of you who emailed or wrote to UK Foreign Minister David Miliband requesting that the UK support the upcoming General Assembly vote on uranium weapons. For ease of understanding we have split the FCO's response into easy to digest parts and included our response to the statement.

"FCO STANDARD RESPONSE" On the 2008 resolution...
The UK’s position on the United Nations (UN) resolution on Depleted Uranium (DU) this year is the same as it was on last year’s resolution. The scientific literature contains a substantial number of reports which indicate that DU has not been shown to have, and indeed is very unlikely to have, any significant impact on the local population or on the veterans of conflicts in which these munitions are used. This includes work done by the United Nations Environment Programme and other independent expert groups. The key finding is that none of these studies have found widespread DU contamination sufficient to impact the health of the general population or deployed military personnel. The UK Government therefore opposed the resolution when the vote took place on 31 October.

Contrary to the UK FCO’s belief, the scientific literature contains a substantial number of reports that are either flawed in their design or limited in their scope. In spite of this the overarching theme from most of them is that there are huge uncertainties over the extent to which civilian populations are being exposed to contamination from uranium weapons, largely because insufficient research has been undertaken on exposed populations.

For example:

"It is highly unsatisfactory to deploy a large amount of material that is weakly radioactive and chemically toxic without knowing how much soldiers and civilians have been exposed to it." Professor Brian Spratt FRS, chairman of the Royal Society's DU working group.

The US Depleted Uranium Follow-Up Program for Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans who have embedded DU shrapnel or have inhaled or ingested DU is… “a well-designed surveillance program”…but…”it does not constitute a comprehensive epidemiologic study of veterans exposed to DU in that the study population is small (so statistical power is low) and includes only those who were determined to have level I exposure.” US Institute of Medicine.

“…localized points of contamination can be heavily contaminated and that level of contamination can vary greatly.” UNEP Kosovo Report.

“…the drinking water could possibly become contaminated in the future.” UNEP Kosovo Report.

“It is very difficult to achieve comprehensive detection and complete decontamination of DU at a given site.” UNEP Kosovo Report

"FCO STANDARD RESPONSE" On the response to last year's vote...
Last year’s resolution tasked the UN Secretary-General with submitting a report to this year’s session of the General Assembly. The UN Report, “Effects of the use of armaments and ammunitions containing Depleted Uranium” of 24 July suggests there is only limited concern about DU among the international community. This is confirmed in the contributions from the governments of Canada, Finland, Germany and Spain and in contributions from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the World Health Organisation that conclude that there is no definitive evidence that DU munitions have had a significant impact on the local population or veterans of conflicts in which these munitions have been used.

Presumably this would be the same Finland and Germany that voted in favour of the new resolution on October 31st.

“Finland greatly values international efforts to discuss the potential risks of the use of depleted uranium in armaments and ammunitions,” Finnish submission to Sec Gen report.

Finland and Germany were joined by Ireland, Italy, Austria, Iceland, the Netherlands and Norway when they supported the resolution – a resolution that merely calls for the UN’s agencies to update their research on uranium weapons to take into account the wealth of new peer-reviewed data on DU. In many respects it was a staggeringly uncontroversial text, a fact that helps explain why the UK found themselves isolated with only the US and France for support. Both of whom are producers and users of uranium weapons.

It is also difficult to take seriously an IAEA that is convinced that only 63 people died as a result of the Chernobyl accident and a WHO that has been roundly criticised for excluding key peer-reviewed data suggesting that uranium is genotoxic from its 2003 monologue on depleted uranium. By way of balance, Serbia a state with direct experience of dealing with DU contamination stated:

“Depleted uranium ammunition is a very dangerous radioactive material with primary and secondary effects and poses a threat not only to military personnel in combat operations, but also to civilian population, flora and fauna and the environment. Initiative should be launched to adopt a Convention against the production and use of depleted uranium ammunition and on its destruction,” Serbian submission to the Sec Gen Report.

Meanwhile Argentina expressed the concerns shared by many states by stating:

“It is our belief that the precaution should be taken to ban further use of armaments and ammunitions containing depleted uranium as long as it is not known how they may affect the health of the population and the environment. Once that moratorium has been established, a group of governmental experts could be convened to consider the subject comprehensively,” Argentine submission to the Sec Gen Report.

"FCO STANDARD RESPONSE" On testing UK service personnel...
The adequacy and validity of the scientific work already carried out is demonstrated by the findings of the biological and health monitoring of UK and other veterans of conflicts in which DU munitions have been used. With the exception of a very small number of personnel in or on vehicles at the time they were attacked by DU munitions, none of the almost 1000 UK personnel monitored has been found to have any DU in their urine. Neither has any evidence of ill-health due to DU exposure been found in the 3,400 Gulf veterans who have attended the Ministry of Defence’s Medical Assessment Programme. Similar findings have been reported by other countries which have carried out this type of monitoring.

In essence, the UK government seems to be saying that civilian populations exposed to uranium weapon contamination are largely irrelevant to the question of the long-term health effects of uranium weapons. There have been no studies into long-term civilian exposure and no interest from the users of uranium weapons in undertaking them. ICBUW believes that it is at best premature and at worst criminally negligent to conclude that uranium weapons have no long-term effects on human health without studying populations that are exposed to those long-term effects. It is a position that would have seen the continued use of asbestos in hospital and primary school building materials to this day, simply because the latency period for mesothelioma is 20 years.

The 800 UK service personnel – out of more than 50,000 who served in conflicts where uranium weapons were used – who responded to the UK Depleted Uranium Oversight Board’s testing regime may well be lucky enough to be clear of DU contamination, but the same cannot be said for the populations of Iraq and the Balkans who now face chronic exposure to a radioactive and chemically toxic material. If the UK MoD’s Gulf Veteran Assessment Programme is involved then perhaps they can rest easy as their leukaemia and lymphomas are likely to be a purely "psychological phenomenon".

"FCO STANDARD RESPONSE" On International law...
We believe that DU is a legitimate weapon and the use of it is not prohibited under any international agreements, including the Geneva Conventions. UK armed forces only use DU munitions in strict accordance with International Humanitarian Law.

ICBUW agrees that DU is not prohibited by any specific treaty, yet. However, under existing IHL we believe that DU breaches:

a) The prohibition of indiscriminate attacks (i.a. of “those which employ a method or means of combat the effects of which cannot be limited as required”, Act. 51 (4) c, Add. Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions)
b) The prohibition to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering
c) The principle of precaution
d) The principle of proportionality

Under Customary the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) identified as one of the rules (no. 44):

“Methods and means of warfare must be employed with due regard to the protection and preservation of the natural environment. In the conduct of military operations, all feasible precautions must be taken to avoid, and in any event to minimize, incidental damage to the environment. Lack of scientific certainty as to the effects on the environment of certain military operations does not absolve a party to the conflict from taking such precautions”.

We would also draw the UK FCO’s attention to the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities two resolutions (1996/16 and 1997/36) that concluded that weapons containing depleted uranium may be classed as weapons “with indiscriminate effects“, being concerned about “repeated reports of the long-term consequences of the use of such weapons upon human life and health and upon the environment”.

The FCO may also be aware of the four calls for a moratorium and ban from the European Parliament and last year’s United Nations General Assembly resolution backed by 136 states to six that called for, amongst others things, a moratorium on the use of uranium weapons until further health studies can be completed.

We will of course ask the UK Ministry of Defence for a precise explanation of what "using DU munitions in strict accordance with International Humanitarian Law," entails.