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Proceedings of Day One of the Latin American Conference on Uranium Weapons

The main themes for the first day included the science of uranium weapons and an overview of the international and Japanese campaigns.
6 March 2009 - ICBUW

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The conference was opened by Isabel Macdonald from the Quaker Peace Centre in San Jose; Isabel gave a brief introduction to how they had begun working with ICBUW on uranium weapons. Isabel thanked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Arias Peace Foundation for their assistance in promoting the event. ICBUW Science Team member Gretel Munroe then praised the hard work and efforts of the event’s sponsors and volunteers and was followed by conference moderator Francisco Cordero, who brought greetings from the Costa Rican National Assembly.

Francisco Cordero
Francisco Cordero

Arias Foundation representative Ana Yanci Espinoza followed these opening words by expressing the importance of disarmament projects in protecting human rights and reducing expenditure on warfare – both aims that are of critical importance to people worldwide.

Cordero then introduced Randolph Coto the Head of Disarmament Policy at the Costa Rican Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who brought a warm welcome from the Ministry. Coto explained that human rights protection has been at the forefront of Costa Rica’s foreign policy for many years. He explained that Costa Rica works hard at the United Nations on small arms and is promoting the Arms Trade Treaty in an effort to control the multimillion dollar global trade in weapons. Costa Rica supported both the Ottawa and Oslo texts on landmines and cluster bombs and is currently working with Malaysia on a resolution on Nuclear weapons, to be introduced at the upcoming Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.

The first panel included Damacio Lopez (IDUST), US veteran Herbert Reed and Italian expert Prof. Massimo Zucchetti.

Damage Panel
Herbert Reed, Damacio Lopez and Prof. Zucchetti

Damacio Lopez described how he had first become aware of DU in 1996 when he returned to his family home near Socorro, New Mexico after years on the road. After learning that DU was being tested on a firing range adjacent to his home he formed a local group, investigated the issue further and eventually became an authority on the use of uranium weapons, visiting Iraq in 1998.

Iraq war veteran Herbert Reed told the story of 23-year-old Dustin Brim who developed three different types of cancers after working in Iraq repairing damaged vehicles for just six months. His mother had persuaded him to join the army to find some direction in life and every day must try and cope with the guilt of sending him into an area contaminated by uranium weapons. It is stories like these, said Herbert, which drive him to tour and speak out on the issue. He said that it is time to hold politicians accountable for their actions in exposing personnel to these hazards and refuses to let his son join the military until they clean up their act. He called on all the attendees to speak out about DU, just as he has.

Prof Zucchetti, a member of the Italian Anti-War Scientists Committee, then spoke on the contamination and subsequent ill health of Italian Balkan War veterans. He has studied the effects of DU for 10 years, since the attacks by NATO on the Balkans and expressed thanks to Domencio Leggiaro from Osservatorio Militare in Italy for his assistance in creating his presentation.

He explained that Italian soldiers were deployed to Iraq in 1991, to Somalia between 1992-1993, Bosnia and Kosovo in 1995 and 1999, Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Of these deployments, it was the mission to the Balkans that resulted in inhalational exposure to DU particles. Exposures chiefly occurred during the cleaning of strike sites and vehicles. Many others who are ill flew helicopters or drove trucks, the vehicles kicking up clouds of contaminated dust.

As with US troops, the Italians were totally unaware of the risks from DU and were not warned – although their government was aware of the dangers after advice from the US. The first warning came six months after their deployment to Kosovo. By chance Italians had been deployed to areas where DU had been used.

In the late 1990s, newspapers began to report that troops were becoming ill and otherwise healthy young men were developing cancers. The Anti War Scientists Committee began to investigate. In December 2000, the Italian government admitted that DU exposure had occurred but downplayed the risks, saying it was too weakly radioactive to be dangerous.

Official studies were instigated after public condemnation but political pressure and technical errors weakened the commission’s results. Nevertheless, they still managed to discover that the mortality rate was 3.5 times higher in the troops than it was in the population as a whole.

Military and peace activists began to work together in December 1999, publishing data and books. Zucchetti and Leggiero were invited to join a second official commission that eventually concluded that, based on the Precautionary Principle DU should not be used on battlefields. According to government data, 2358 personnel have been ill with tumours while 167 have died of leukaemia and Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Many legal actions have taken place but troops struggled to demonstrate a causal link between exposure and ill health. Then in December 2008, an Italian soldier managed to persuade a court’s scientific advisers of the link between his cancer and DU. The Italian government have now admitted that DU kills and, expecting a landslide of claims in the courts, have assigned a pot of €30m to compensate sick veterans.

Questions followed on whether the CAFTA free trade agreement could allow the US to import or develop DU weapons in Costa Rica. Francisco Cordera explained that, while breaching the Free Trade Agreement could lead to a court case at an international trade tribunal, existing laws, and others under development will guarantee that DU weapons cannot be manufactured on Costa Rican territory.

More questions followed on Gulf War Syndrome, testing at the Socorro Range, NATO’s position on DU and on the treatment and testing of veterans returning home from conflicts.

Ria Verjauw and Doug Weir
Ria Verjauw and Doug Weir

ICBUW Steering Committee member Ria Verjuw and ICBUW Coordinator Doug Weir then spoke on the history of ICBUW’s campaign and its eventual goals. After discussing the nature of the weapons and their effects, they described how repeated wars in Iraq and the Balkans had increased international outrage and triggered the formation of ICBUW. Work at the European Parliament and at the United Nations had helped to raise awareness of uranium to the point where repeated resolutions highlighting health effects and calling for action had been passed, by huge majorities. In conclusion, they spoke of the significance that a uranium weapon treaty would have for future arms control efforts and environmental protection.

After lunch, President of the Latin American Parliament’s Human Rights Commission and member of Costa Rica’s legislative assembly Alexander Mora Mora, thanked the event organisers and described how the development of supreme constitutional court rulings had helped enshrine the right to peace in the Costa Rican constitution. He argued that humanity’s natural state is one of mutual peace and not conflict and that we must always give support to human rights and not allow space for war if humanity is to prevail. Acknowledging that there have been great steps forward in the protection of human rights though domestic and regional courts, he argued that human rights legislation must continue to evolve.

Alexander Mora Mora
Alexander Mora Mora

He praised activists for their work on uranium weapons that will eventual protect the right to life of generations as yet unborn.

These principles are the backdrop for his decision to introduce a comprehensive law proposal that will ban the use of uranium in weapons in Cost Rica; as was the need for Costa Rica to set a regional and international example.

He then announced that since introducing the proposal the day before, he had gathered the signatures of 36 of the 57 members of the legislature for a letter to President Oscar Arias requesting that he takes on the project with great urgency. He hoped he would have more by late afternoon and that this would allow Costa Rica to become the second country in the world to ban DU within a few months, adding that while Cost Rica may be geographically small, it is large in pacifist values and the defence of democracy.

He ended by suggesting that he could also introduce the proposal to the Latin American Parliament where it could act as a framework law for other states in the region.

Alexander Mora Mora was followed by two members of ICBUW’s Science Team.

Dr Katsumi Furitsu gave a basic introduction to DU, DU weapons and the means through which they may damage human health. Dr Furitsu described how the ceramic uranium particles formed at high temperatures in DU strikes are unique and unlike those found in uranium mines, where much of the research into inhalational DU exposure has taken place. She went on to argue forcefully for the application of the Precautionary Principle – leading as it would to a moratorium – and criticised the position of the World Health Organisation for ignoring crucial data on uranium’s potential for harm.

Gretel Munroe assessed recent reports from the US into exposure to DU, finding significant problems with them. These included unnecessary complexity, missing or incomplete bibliographies of published data linking exposure to ill health or just bad science. This latter problem included the claim that animal and cellular studies are less useful than human studies because animals receive higher doses. Yet in the testing of drugs on animals, similarly high doses are used as standard and if the drugs appear harmful, they are not allowed to go on sale. DU should be assessed in a similar way she said.

Gretel Munroe
Gretel Munroe

One of the most widely promoted studies – undertaken by Melissa McDiarmid, lacked controls, good exposure data and was of too small a size to be able to reach statistically significant results. Most damning of all, exposed soldiers who were contaminated and already ill, were excluded from the study and when two test subjects developed tumours, these were ignored. In spite of this, the US government has promoted the study as proof of DU’s safety.

Visa difficulties meant that Dr Jawad Al-Ali Head of the Basra Cancer Research Group was forced to email his presentation to the conference organisers. His slides mapped the areas where DU was used in and around the Basra area and showed piles of contaminated tanks left in residential areas. Tests on soil around these scrap yards had revealed high levels of radioactivity. His figures showed radiation levels between 100 and 1000 times background levels around strike sites, a sevenfold rise in birth defects and an increase in multiple cancers, particularly in the young. This includes unusually high levels of ovarian cancers in very young children and many families where several family members develop cancer.

Data gathered by Dr Al-Ali indicates that in the Basra area, an unusually high proportion of children under 16 have developed cancers; this is very different to the typical spread of cancer in Western populations, where it is mainly a disease of old age.

He had written that nothing has been done to clean up and decontaminate areas due to the great cost in doing so and appealed for the urgent introduction of cancer screening.

Their work has revealed that there is a genuine increase in cancer in Basra; however they lack the resources to be able to study the cancers in more detail. Epidemiological studies are urgently required.

Questions followed on Gulf War Syndrome, DU rounds and the World Health Organisation.

Photo-journalist Naomi Toyoda then shared some of his photos of the impact of conflict and uranium munitions from around the world. This included images of sick veterans from the US, UK and Italy as well as US firing ranges in South Korea and Japan.

Prof. Kazashi Nobuo from the NO DU Hiroshima Project described how the Japanese campaign had been inspired by the visit to Japan of Iraqi doctors who wanted to learn from the Japanese experience of treating radiation sickness following the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. A group of 20 Japanese citizens and politicians then visited Iraq to see for themselves the problems that had been raised by the Iraqis. Deep engagement in the issue soon followed and just prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq thousands of Japanese activists came to Hiroshima to spell out the words ‘No War – No DU’. The image was subsequently used in an advert in the New York Times.

Ban DU Next

A further visit to Iraq was arranged soon after the end of the 2003 conflict to assess the damage and in 2005, contaminated US veterans visited Japan to speak about their experiences. The following year saw the third international ICBUW conference in Hiroshima, which was attended by 1000 people over three days.

US bases have been the focus of much campaigning in Japan and South Korea, at one stage it emerged that the base in US Okinawa had more than 400,000 DU rounds stored at it.

Their most recent event followed the successful conclusion of the Oslo Process on cluster munitions. Campaigners spelt out the message ‘BAN DU NEXT’ with candles placed in front of the Hiroshima A-bomb dome as the treaty was signed in Oslo.

Questions from the audience covered the victims of uranium weapons, the Japanese government’s stance on the issue, whether Japan is still a peaceful country and whether the use of DU is war crime.

A Costa Rican student from the floor summed up the feel of the final session by saying that seeing the impact that these weapons have had makes him realise how lucky they are to live in a country with no army.