UK Uranium Weapons Network launched as Belgium becomes first country to ban depleted uranium weapons
Belgium’s decision to take a lead on uranium weapons came after parliamentarians concluded that a growing body of evidence linking uranium with potential health problems supported a precautionary approach to their use.1 Belgium’s decision has been praised by European military unions who are concerned about the impact the weapons may have on their members. Belgium was also the first country in the world to ban anti-personnel land mines and cluster bombs which, like uranium weapons, have also been classified as inhumane and indiscriminate by the United Nations and legal experts.
Depleted uranium is a by-product of the enrichment of uranium for nuclear fuel and weapons. It is used in a range of armour-piercing weapons and tank armour for its high density and combustibility. Use of the chemically toxic and radioactive substance has long been viewed as controversial following reports of increased cancers and birth defects in areas where it has been used.
In response to growing international concern over the impact that these weapons have on civilians and service personnel, leading UK NGOs and faith groups have now joined forces to demand that the government abides by a Europe-wide call for a moratorium on their use and testing. The groups have also called on the UK government to work towards a global treaty banning the weapons, just as it did for the Oslo Process on cluster munitions.
Opposition to uranium weapons in Belgium has been spearheaded by a group of more than 20 NGOs, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Spurred on by their success, the Belgian Coalition Stop Uranium Weapons has stated that it will now encourage the Belgian government to take up this issue internationally.
“The coming into force of the Belgian law banning uranium weapons does not mean the end for the Belgian Coalition,” said a spokesperson for the Belgian Coalition. “The new target will be to convince the Belgian Foreign Ministry that our politicians have a responsibility to take the initiative in international steps to control uranium weapons as we work towards a global uranium weapons convention.”
The event has been marked in the UK by the launch of the 11-member strong UK Uranium Weapons Network. The Network is supported by: the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, Campaign Against Depleted Uranium, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Environmental Justice Foundation, Medact, the Muslim Council of Britain, the Northern Friends Peace Board, Pax Christi, People & Planet, Quaker Peace & Social Witness and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
“As we have learnt more about the potential dangers posed by these munitions, governments worldwide have begun to sit up and take notice,” said a spokesperson for the UK Uranium Weapons Network. “However the UK government’s response has thus far been lamentable. They stick dogmatically to outdated science, refuse to countenance discussions over the legality of their stock of weapons and show no concern towards civilians exposed to DU contamination as a result of their activities. As a result they are growing increasingly isolated among the international community.”
• the use of inhumane and indiscriminate weapons such as landmines, cluster bombs and uranium weapons must be challenged by civil society;
• the protection of civilians and the environment must be paramount in armed conflict;
• the chemically toxic and radioactive particles released by uranium weapons have the potential to damage the health of both military personnel and civilians;
• the growing body of animal and cellular studies linking uranium exposure with damage to human health supports a precautionary approach to the use of uranium weapons;
• while so little research has been undertaken into the effects of uranium weapons on exposed civilian populations it is scientifically irresponsible to claim that they are safe.
In recognition of this, the UK Uranium Weapons Network:
• Calls for the UK to accept an EU-wide moratorium on the use of uranium weapons in line with the European Parliament’s 2008 resolution ‘Depleted uranium weapons and their effect on human health and the environment - towards a global ban on the use of such weapons’ by removing its CHARM3 tank ammunition from service.
• Calls on the UK to stop the testing of uranium weapons.
• Calls on the UK government to support a global ban on the use, transport, manufacture, stockpiling, sale and export of all conventional uranium weapons and armour and to work multilaterally towards a comprehensive uranium weapon convention.
International and UK context
The increasing uncertainty over their potential to damage health has seen the issue of uranium weapons rise swiftly up the international disarmament agenda in recent years. Two United Nations General Assembly resolutions have highlighted potential health concerns while a 2008 European Parliament resolution requesting an immediate moratorium on their use was supported by 94% of MEPs.2,3
In the UK, the Ministry of Defence’s continued use of the Dundrennan Range in south-west Scotland for testing its toxic CHARM3 tank ammunition has drawn condemnation from the Scottish government; and in February this year the UK Cooperative Bank elected to bar all investments in uranium weapon manufacturers in response to customer concerns.4,5
The UK government continues to deny any links between uranium weapons and ill health and in December 2008, along with the US, France and Israel, sought to block a resolution calling for World Health Organisation (WHO), International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to update their positions on the weapons in light of new data on the threat that they represent.6
The resolution was supported by 141 states, including many of the UK’s EU allies such as Germany, Italy and Finland. Even NATO has accepted the need to reassess the use of depleted uranium and will abide by the decision of the WHO when it publishes a fresh assessment on the latest research next year.7
However, campaigners and scientists remain concerned over whether the WHO will give an independent and scientifically balanced view on the issue. The organisation’s previous statement on depleted uranium in 2003 was roundly criticised for excluding peer-reviewed data showing that uranium is genotoxic – that it can damage DNA, causing mutations that may cause cancer. The papers had been included in the report’s first draft but were apparently later removed at the behest of the WHO’s management.8
1. Belgium bans uranium weapons and armour: http://www.bandepleteduranium.org/en/a/118.html
2. 141 States support resolution calling for UN agencies to update their positions in light of health concerns: http://www.bandepleteduranium.org/en/a/224.html
3. European Parliament passes far reaching DU resolution in landslide vote: http://www.bandepleteduranium.org/en/a/181.html
4. MSPs and NGOs condemn renewed weapons tests at Dundrennan: http://www.bandepleteduranium.org/en/a/172.html
5. UK Cooperative Bank ceases investments in uranium weapon manufacturers: http://www.bandepleteduranium.org/en/a/241.html
6. 141 states support second uranium weapons resolution in UN General Assembly vote
7. NATO prepared to take a fresh look at uranium weapons: http://www.bandepleteduranium.org/en/a/268.html
8. BBC: Senior scientist with the United Nations has told the BBC that studies showing that it was carcinogenic were suppressed from a seminal World Health Organisation report.