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Canada: is it really at the forefront of efforts against depleted uranium weapons?

Canada’s new Foreign Minister Rob Nicholson has claimed that Canada has been leading global efforts on the non-proliferation of DU weapons, among other things, but does this claim bear scrutiny?
9 February 2015 - ICBUW

Last autumn, ICBUW wrote to a number of partners in the current operations against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. We were concerned about the US’s deployment of A10 gunships to the conflict and the possibility that DU would be used in Iraq for a third time. A few months earlier Iraq had called for a global treaty ban on the weapons and assistance from the international community in dealing with the legacy of 1991 and 2003.

Rob Nicholson As Canada is a partner in the coalition, we wrote to Minister for Defence the Rt Hon Rob Nicholson and his opposition shadows - Nicholson replaced John Baird as Foreign Minister today, Feb 9th. We were pleasantly surprised to get a response but sceptical of its content. Nicholson wrote that: Canada has been at the forefront of global counter-proliferation efforts of conventional, nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, including those related to depleted uranium weapons.”

Canada’s track record on global counter-proliferation efforts has been unimpressive of late, most notably on cluster munitions, where the domestic legislation required to ratify the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions has staggered through parliament. At issue has been the question of cluster munitions’ use in joint operations – presumably with the US, a non-signatory to the convention. Earl Turcotte, the diplomat who negotiated on behalf of Canada during the Oslo Process on cluster munitions has been a vocal critic of the legislation: “Bill C-6 constitutes a reversal of many of the key commitments Canada made during negotiations and by signing the convention in 2008 and is an affront to other states that negotiated in good faith.”

Our correspondence took place shortly before the UN General Assembly vote on DU last year. True to current form, Canada was at the forefront of abstaining on the resolution, something it has done since 2007 on the four previous texts tabled at the General Assembly. For an explanation, we need to look back to 2008 where Canada submitted a report to the UN Secretary General on the issue:

"Canadian Forces have never used depleted uranium ammunition in operations or fired such ammunition during land-based training anywhere in Canada. Depleted uranium was eliminated from the Canadian Forces’ weapons inventory in 1998. Canadian policy precludes the export of uranium and depleted uranium for military use. Canada abstained on the First Committee resolution on this matter because, absent objective research findings that indicate adverse effects of the use of depleted uranium on human health, Canada does not view a moratorium on its use as necessary at this time." 

This year’s UN resolution, which was supported by 150 countries, contained no language on restricting use, instead helping only to establish that the use of the weapons should carry with it some obligations, such as transparency in targeting so as to facilitate clean-up. This is largely in accordance with the views of the WHO and UNEP, which have both highlighted the need for remedial risk reduction measures around sites targeted with the weapons. Nevertheless, Canada abstained once again. Not quite the “leadership” role claimed by Nicholson.

On the protection of civilians

Nicholson’s letter concluded by referencing Canadian policy on the protection of civilians: During its participation in international coalitions or in its own operations, the CAF strictly abides by standards of international humanitarian law, including ensuring the protection of civilian populations during and after any operation.”

Ironically, the resolution text Canada abstained on called for more studies into DU hazards in conflict settings and for assistance for states affected by the use of the weapons. The purpose of both was to help ensure that civilians enjoy greater protection from contamination in areas where the munitions are used. Studies in conflict settings would also help increase our understanding of the exposure risks for civilians, research needed to determine the health risks posed by the weapons in real world settings. This has become increasingly important in recent years as our knowledge of the means through which DU exposure could damage health has grown.

During the last two years, the DU debate in Canada has focused solely on the risks to Canadian personnel who have served in areas where DU was used (for example the recent case of Alain Vachon). A study commissioned by parliament looked into the matter and in 2013 concluded that the risks were low. However its scope did not cover the risks to civilians. In doing so it mirrored work done in the UK and US, where civilian health risks – particularly for high risk groups such as children and scrap metal workers - have been wholly absent from considerations over the acceptability of DU munitions.

With national elections fast approaching, Canada’s recent “leadership” on global non-proliferation efforts, including DU, should be scrutinised by voters, as should its role in Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria, where DU may once again be being used in country that has called for a global ban on the weapons.