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WIKILEAKS: Belgian government told US that depleted uranium ban did not cover Antwerp shipments

A series of leaked US cables has revealed that Belgium’s government assured the US that the country’s domestic ban would not apply to US shipments through Antwerp following anger at the passage of the law.
3 February 2011 - ICBUW
In 2007, Belgian parliamentarians voted unanimously to ban depleted uranium weapons, adding the weapons to an existing law that already banned anti-personnel landmines, cluster bombs and other inhumane weapons. Last minute negotiations saw the bill’s sponsors introduce a compromise that delayed the law’s entry into force by two years, apparently after pressure from Minister of Foreign Affairs De Gucht, who was contacted by US officials ahead of the vote.

Now a series of leaked US cables from its embassy in Brussels has shed light on the US government’s concern over what impact the ban might have. It also reveals the assurances offered by the Belgian government that the ban would not harm wider US interests or the transport of US weapons to Afghanistan and Iraq through the Belgian port of Antwerp.

Belgian campaigners have reacted angrily to the revelations, as the 2007 law clearly bans the transport of depleted uranium weapons through Belgian territory. "Article 8 of the Belgian weapons law stipulates that nobody is allowed to transfer or transport prohibited weapons, including depleted uranium weapons,” said a spokesperson for the Belgian Coalition. “It is outrageous that in January 2009, the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs offered assurances to US diplomats that Belgium's treaty obligations to the US and NATO take precedence over its domestic law, meaning that in an international context of operations the Belgian weapons law will be powerless.”

The first cable dates from 2007 and focuses on the parliamentary vote. Upon learning of the imminent vote on the matter, US diplomats called on the main sponsor of the legislation Flemish Socialist Dirk Van der Maelen and the Chair of the Committee on Defence Liberal Democrat Stef Goris. US diplomats claimed to have been reassured that the legislation was merely symbolic and nothing more than a gesture aimed at their supporters ahead of the Belgian elections.

Belgian MP and anti-DU champion Dirk van der Maelen Belgian MP Dirk Van der Maelen

Predictably the leak has sparked significant media interest in Belgium and Van der Maelen has responded by arguing that, as Belgium wasn’t a user of the weapons it was a symbolic act. Belgium also passed similar legislation on anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions, both of which went on to be banned by treaty. Recalling US anger during several meetings to Belgian newspapers Van der Maelen said: "Of course it was a symbolic act – the law relates only to Belgium. A ban will only make sense in the context of an international treaty.”

Since the passage of the ban, Dirk Van der Maelen has helped promote similar legislation in other countries and is convinced that an international treaty banning uranium weapons will be realised. “Depleted uranium weapons are inhumane weapons that cause irreversible harm to humans, the environment and future generations. That was my motivation to take the initiative to ban uranium weapons in Belgium,” said Van der Maelen. “I’m convinced that the final goal of a total ban on these inhumane weapons will be reached. Contrary to what the American ambassador said, the Belgian law was not put on the shelf, the international support [for a global ban] is still growing.”

The US was also concerned about the ability of Belgian troops to operate with US forces employing depleted uranium weapons. So-called interoperability has been at the forefront of US concerns as its NATO allies have signed up to the treaties banning cluster munitions and anti-personnel landmines. The 2007 cable reveals that diplomats were reassured by the committee report that accompanied the bill, which noted that: the bill notes explicitly that Belgian forces can freely participate, plan, and assist operations with troops using depleted uranium.

A second cable, dating from early 2008, reveals that Belgian diplomats told the US embassy that they were keen for the ban to be sidelined and its entry into force further delayed or abandoned due to the uncertainty over the impact of the weapons. This would have allowed Belgium to continue to abstain on the issue at the UN First Committee vote later that year. The government was under pressure to support the resolution as Belgian politicians were already pointing out that another Belgian abstention would be at odds with the country’s domestic legislation on the issue, even though it had not yet entered into force. Ironically the 2008 resolution merely called for more research into the impact of the weapons, with a focus on affected areas.

The final cable, which dates from January 2009, again raises the spectre of a ban on shipments of US weapons through the port of Antwerp. It also questioned whether the Belgium ban might have an influence internationally.

The cable reports that assurances were offered by the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs that: “as a civil law jurisdiction, Belgium´s treaty obligations to the United States and NATO take precedence over its domestic law.” It continues: “We also note that as a matter of fact, similar Belgian laws prohibiting anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions have not had an impact on U.S. or NATO operations.”

Belgian diplomats went on to observe that they had been under considerable pressure from campaigners to vote in favour of the 2008 First Committee resolution but had resisted. They also said that the government was planning to review whether the law should be allowed to enter into force before the June 2009 deadline. It was noted by the Belgian side that its entry into force could encourage further opposition to the weapons both at home and abroad. Consideration was then given to whether the US could influence the government into adding an amendment to help delay the law’s entry into force further. They were advised that too much interference in the Belgian political process could be counter productive, continuing: “so any public diplomacy effort would have to be thoroughly discussed and undertaken with a light touch.”

Commenting on the three cables, a Belgian Coalition spokesperson said: “Belgian peace movements are not surprised by the interference of the US in Belgian politics. Belgium’s 1993 Universal Jurisdiction Law the so called Genocide Law, which permits victims to file complaints in Belgium for atrocities committed abroad, has made Belgium a leader in the struggle for international justice. In 2003, human rights groups denounced pressure from the US that led to the weakening of this law. US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld threatened Belgium, telling its government that it risked losing its status as host to NATO’s headquarters if it did not repeal the law. US officials threatened to move NATO out of Belgium and also threatened to discourage US companies from investing in and doing business with Belgium.

“The Belgian Coalition will continue to promote the Belgian law abroad to increase global awareness of the issue and inspire other countries to take similar initiatives. It should be remembered that even a symbolic act can be a powerful non violent weapon.”

Attachments

  • US embassy cables on Belgian domestic ban

    40 Kb - Format pdf
    - Source: Wikileaks
    The three embassy cables that have revealed the position of the Belgian government after US anger at the country's ban on depleted uranium weapons.