Norwegian Foreign Minister makes statement on depleted uranium
The debate was triggered by a question from Labour Minister Laila Gustavsen that raised concerns over the situation in Iraq and asked how Norway could contribute to an international ban based on the precautionary principle.
Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre said that the government was looking seriously at the issue of depleted uranium weapons due to ongoing concerns over their impact. However, he said that for as long as there is no direct causal link between their use and ill health it would not be possible to work directly for an international ban on their use.
Discussing the Norwegian military’s position on the weapons, he said that the Norwegian Armed Forces do not use depleted uranium and that this position was adopted in 2001 as a precautionary measure following controversy over its use in the Balkans. Norwegian armour-piercing rounds are made of tungsten. This includes the new ammunition for Norway’s F35 Joint Strike Fighters that will be bought from the US. The US had initially intended for it to fire a 25mm depleted uranium round. Concern from several potential international buyers had encouraged arms companies Nammo and Thales Australia to develop an alternative tungsten round. He added that depleted uranium has not been used on Norwegian firing ranges and that the domestic arms industry does not produce the rounds.
He briefly touched on the physical properties that have historically made DU an attractive substance for the military before moving on to the potential health and environmental consequences. He said that Norway had long sought answers to these concerns, in particular concern over causes of illnesses in veterans.
On the reports of an increase in cancers and birth defects in Fallujah, he noted that while civil society had suggested a link between them and exposure to depleted uranium, UN agencies such as IAEA, WHO and UNEP have all claimed that it is impossible to draw definitive conclusions. However he pointed out that it is important that all three organisations urge caution over the potential for unforeseen consequences to the use of the weapons. UNEP in particular has noted that there is uncertainty over the possible effects of DU in groundwater. He hoped that a new WHO study may add extra information to the debate.
Foreign Minister Støre felt that it was necessary for research into the impact of the weapons by WHO, UNEP and IAEA to be ongoing. He also said that Norway was contributing to research work conducted by scientists with ties to ICBUW. He said that more in-depth research was needed and welcomed an event planned by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in Oslo.
He went on to discuss the term humanitarian disarmament noting how the humanitarian consequences of weapons must guide the government’s disarmament policy. Not only does this cover landmines and cluster munitions, but also nuclear weapons and regulating the trade in conventional arms.
Norwegian policy is based on the principles enshrined in international humanitarian law – in particular the distinction between civilians and combatants. As was the case with mines and cluster munitions, if a weapon is incapable of distinguishing between these two groups then that may form the basis of an international ban, which can be an important norm-building measure. However, humanitarian impact may also go beyond regular armed conflicts in which humanitarian law applies. Similarly the impact of conflict needs to be seen in its broadest sense and assistance must be offered to help the victims of armed violence.
Jonas Gahr Støre at the conclusion of the Oslo Process on Cluster Munitions
He argued that it is important to take the widest possible approach in investigating the health impact seen in places such as Yugoslavia and Iraq and that it would be wrong to focus solely on depleted uranium. Other factors might include the use of explosive weapons in densely populated areas and, using Gaza as an example, he also identified the collapse of sanitation, pollution from damaged industrial facilities, the emission of chemicals and dusts and the psychosomatic effects from traumatic experiences. He argued that all these have a humanitarian impact on civilians.
He went on to observe that putting depleted uranium into a broader humanitarian context is not the same as letting go of the issue. Norway supports more research in this field and has supported the recent resolution at the UN, they have also encouraged their allies to do likewise. However at present they haven’t seen evidence of a willingness to support an international ban based on the precautionary principle amongst the international community. He highlighted the importance of the call for transparency from the users of depleted uranium, noting its importance for facilitating studies into the impact of the weapons.
In concluding he said: ”This is not the time, as we see it now, to initiate a process towards a [global] ban on the use of depleted uranium. But it is time to keep the matter on the agenda, provide more research and support the international processes that can bring more clarity to an issue that clearly needs more light, more knowledge for possible future action.”
Responding to the Minister’s statement Laila Gustavsen and Tore Nordtun (Labour) welcomed the government’s commitment to encouraging further research into the issue and for helping keep it live at the UN. Nordtun welcomed the call for a ban based on the precautionary principle but acknowledged that it would be difficult to achieve at present, he urged the government to keep the issue at the top of the agenda.
Jan Arild Ellingsen (Progress Party) also welcomed the Foreign Minister’s suggestions for more research, suggesting that this should also cover the military perspective – as well as the humanitarian aspects.
Ivar Kristiansen (Conservative) said DU was a Cold War weapon and that good quality data was missing to support the debate. He suggested that a range of environmental contaminants may be affecting the people of Iraq, and also that Gulf War veterans were exposed to a range of substances. He believed that persuading the UK and US to stop using the weapons could be more effective than trying to persuade 150 countries to sign a treaty.
Gustavsen responded by acknowledging that a ban was not the only way forward but highlighted the need for transparency and the importance of Norway keeping this issue on the international agenda. She said that she saw no contradiction between a humanitarian and military approach to the issue as service personnel were also at risk. In concluding she said that she was pleased at the sense of consensus among the speakers.