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148 states call for transparency over depleted uranium use in UN vote

148 states have supported a United Nations General Assembly resolution calling on state users of depleted uranium weapons to reveal where the weapons have been fired when asked to do so by affected countries.
8 December 2010 - ICBUW

The resolution was passed by a huge majority, with just four countries opposing the text. As with previous UN resolutions in 2007 and 2008, the UK, US, Israel and France voted against. The number of abstentions was down on previous years after Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Greece, Luxembourg and Slovenia voted in favour. Nevertheless, abstentions were still registered by Australia, Canada, Denmark and Sweden amongst others. The Russian Federation also abstained, while China declined to vote.

UN logo The resolution was triggered by growing concern over the US’s failure to release information on the whereabouts of at least 400,000kgs depleted uranium munitions used in Iraq. Question marks also remain over whether the weapons have been used in Afghanistan, Somalia and Chechnya. Research by ICBUW has shown that the rapid release of targeting data after conflicts is crucial in reducing avoidable civilian exposures; recommendations that national authorities monitor soil and water contamination and, where necessary, decontaminate sites, are also reliant on this data.

The UK, US and France maintain that it is up to the users of the weapons to release this data at a time and in a manner of their own choosing. While the UK has shared information on their use of the weapons in Iraq in 2003 with UN agencies, the US has made no effort to do so. It is now 19 years since the first major use of depleted uranium in Iraq.

In a joint statement explaining their position during the first round of voting at the First Committee, the UK, US and France wrote: “[Operative paragraph 6] requests that states that have used depleted uranium in armed conflict to provide information about its use. We have serious doubts on the relevance of such a request, according to IHL [International Humanitarian Law]. We consider that it is up to each state to provide data at such a time and in such a manner as it deems appropriate.

The attempt by these countries to try and conflate the resolution with IHL has been challenged by legal specialists, who pointed out that it is not a question of whether it is appropriate under IHL but rather whether the request in itself is reasonable. It is clear that 148 states felt that it was.

Contaminated hotpot, Hadzici, Bosnia
Gamma radiation at 40x background from decay products from a 30mm depleted uranium round under tarmac 15 years after it was fired, Hadzici, BiH.

Reacting to the vote, an ICBUW spokesperson said: “It is abundantly clear that even the most conservative mitigation measures are made much more difficult by the failure of states to promptly identify where the weapons have been used.

"The US, UK and France’s ongoing apparent policy of non or limited disclosure is outrageous and at odds with their legal obligations to protect civilians and the environment during and after conflict.

"The feebleness of their attempted justification for their position makes clear that they have few concerns over the long-term impact of these munitions on civilians, and are instead solely interested in protecting their toxic and outdated weapons. This is the strongest level of support for a resolution on this issue yet and we believe it reflects a growing impatience with the users of these weapons.”

On learning of the results, UK campaigners reacted angrily, accusing the UK government of hypocrisy and of ignoring the wishes of its own parliament. In the run up to the vote, 90 Members of Parliament had signed a motion calling on the government to support the resolution, while representatives from all the main UK parties had written to the press to highlight the text.

A spokesperson for the UK Uranium Weapons Network said: “The UK’s decision to vote against the resolution is extremely disappointing. Sites contaminated by land mines, cluster munitions or depleted uranium all represent a post-conflict hazard to civilians.

"All these sites require remedial work and, as a vast majority of states recognise, including those states that have had to endure the impact of these weapons, this work is impossible without full transparency over where the weapons have been used.”

As with previous years, the resolution was submitted by Indonesia on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement. In addition to the general call for transparency, it also recognised the importance of implementing recommendations by UN agencies to help mitigate the hazards from depleted uranium. Discussion over the long-term impact of these weapons is ongoing but the World Health Organisation and International Atomic Energy Agency both call for sites to be marked, and where necessary decontaminated. The United Nations Environment Programme has called for a precautionary approach to the use of the weapons due to ongoing uncertainties about the environmental behaviour of uranium contamination.

Resolutions passed in 2007 and 2008 accepted the potential risk from depleted uranium weapons and called for more focused research on affected states. This research has been hindered the lack of transparency from users.

The full list of abstainers is as follows: Albania, Andorra, Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Micronesia, Palau, Poland, Portugal, Rep of Korea, Rep of Moldova, Romania, Russian Federation, Sao Tome and Principe, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, TFYR Macedonia, Turkey and Ukraine. A full voting record can be downloaded below: