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

The main themes for the second and final day included DU and international and domestic law and DU contamination in Latin America.
7 March 2009 - ICBUW

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After an introduction from the Arias Foundation’s Ana Yanci Espinoza, ICBUW Coordinator Doug Weir, standing in for ICBUW’s legal advisor Prof. Manfred Mohr, gave an overview of international law and uranium weapons. Assessing which principles of International Humanitarian Law apply to uranium weapons, he reported that DU could justifiably be considered indiscriminate when used in populated areas and falls foul of the Principle of Precaution, factors that justify an immediate moratorium.

He went on to discuss the means through which the campaign may arrive at a uranium weapons treaty, examining why the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons may fail to deal with the issue satisfactorily if the experiences of the campaigns to ban landmines and cluster bombs were anything to go by.

Prof. Nobuo Kazashi then presented on three aspects of the campaign: media attention, solidarity and victim assistance. He argued that nuclear weapons overshadow the campaign against DU and that DU is currently not seen as enough of a priority among states and activists. That governments have concealed the true effects of the weapons is a major contributing factor. That said, and thanks to the work of many people, interest is now growing among the international community.

On victim assistance he recalled a trip to Iraq where new mothers don’t ask whether it is a girl or a boy, but instead ask is it normal is it alive? They found that when the Japanese public learn of the reality, they feel that they should do something – it is a very direct and immediate feeling and the campaign must not appear distant and aloof. Articles on victim assistance are considered an essential part of the landmine ban and cluster bomb ban. He felt that they could see a day when a DU treaty will have also offer powerful victim assistance so there is no separation between banning a weapon and extending assistance.

Even now, he noted that doctors, medics and NGOs are working together, for example – JIM-NET, Save the Iraqi Children Nagoya and Hiroshima, Iraq Hope Net. There has been and will continue to be, epidemiological survey collaboration between ICBUW and Iraqi, Japanese, German, Italian and Iranian doctors.

Human Cost Exhibiton

The Human Cost of Uranium Weapons Exhibition

On the media, he observed that not only has the coverage been inadequate, but it has also been dangerous. He used the example of Korean journalist Lee Si-Woo, who was arrested after being accused of violating national security law. A further example was the coverage of contamination from a US DU factory where, when it was announced that residents were still excreting DU in their urine 20 years later the factory’s closure, only local US papers covered the news.

On solidarity building – national campaigns are of crucial importance, although ICBUW now has more than 100 members, much remains to be done. In the US he discovered that people had seen an interest in DU as unpatriotic and cannot believe their own country had used it. Activists who encountered this attitude often distanced themselves from the campaign.

He urged delegates to stay in closer contact with each other – as isolated we are powerless. State delegations at the UN always say how important domestic pressure is, often they will only consider the issue if they have been approached at home.

He ended by inviting groups to join ICBUW, sign up to our email alerts or join our Facebook group, which now has 1200 members from across the world.

The session ended with the presentation of a statement from Members of the European Parliament who have been working hard on uranium weapons for many years.

Audience members asked how a small country like Costa Rica could influence the global campaign and whether a ban could cover the civilian uses of DU.

We were then joined by two representatives from – an NGO with representatives in 40 countries who are planning a Peace Walk to promote non-violence and human rights. They are planning activities in 60 countries and in December will begin the walk in Wellington, New Zealand. From there they will visit Asia, Russia, Europe and Africa before walking the length of the Americas, finally finishing in Patagonia. They are supported by Mayors for Peace and are cooperating with 1140 NGOs worldwide.

They will visit Madrid next week and want to introduce the Spanish government to the new Costa Rican law proposal. They wished the coalition strength and success.

They were followed by a presentation of Pablo Ortega’s film, made especially for the conference, on the hazards and history of uranium weapons and a video message from John Lindsay Polland of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Polland’s video showed evidence of the testing of DU in Panama by the US. Testing in panama had been widespread, with considerable volumes of chemical weapons being imported for tests under tropical conditions.

The first afternoon session maintained this theme as Raymundo Garcés from the Panamanian Construction Workers Union (SUNTRACS) went into further detail about military contamination in Panama. The Treaty of the Panama Canal that was signed with the US, left the US duty bound to decontaminate and clear up the 17000 hectares of military bases, test sites and ranges that are present in the country. Thus far the US has failed to fulfil this pledge and dozens of sites remain contaminated with UXO and chemical weapons.

This waste includes DU rounds. Ex-US military clearance expert, Rick Stauber, revealed that uranium had been tested in Panama, although they were euphemistically defined as ‘non-explosive tank rounds’. Stauber lost his job after refusing to sign up to the report that down played the use of uranium weapons.

Panamanian NGOs have also been deeply concerned by the transit of ships carrying nuclear waste and weapons through the Panama Canal.

Messages of solidarity were then presented, sent in by some of ICBUW’s member groups and friends from around the world.

The solidarity messages were followed by Randolph Coto from the Costa Rican Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After introducing Cost Rica’s historical work on disarmament issues, he presented the report that has been submitted to the United Nations Secretary General following the request to do so in the General Assembly resolutions in 2007 and 2008. In it, Costa Rica recognises the scientific uncertainties inherent in the issue but argued that this should not stop us taking action on a precautionary basis. The text also calls for a global moratorium on DU and more focused research on affected civilian populations. It ends by pledging support for global steps towards a comprehensive ban on uranium weapons.

Whilst Prof. Carlos Vargas, Vice President of IALANA was preparing his presentation, Francisco Cordero revealed that news that since the previous day, a further eight legislature members had signed the law proposal, bringing the total to 40.

Vargas’s presentation took a more detailed look at international law and considered how our experience with working on legislation and treaties on nuclear weapons may help inform the campaign. He was clear on the fact that uranium weapons break existing international law and had reached three conclusions. The first was that DU breaches the Martens Clause of the 1899 Hague Convention. The second was that its use represents a breach of the 1907 Hague Conventions – that being that the right to cause harm is not unlimited. Finally he argued that DU breaches the Geneva Protocol on the use of asphyxiating, poisonous, or other gases and materials and devices.

He ended with a look back at the impact that the Model Nuclear Weapon Convention has had on the nuclear debate, suggesting that it is possible to make an impact at the UN, even on the Permanent Five Security Council members.

The final panel session began with an overview of the global campaign and its relevance to Costa Rica by Damacio Lopez, making a passionate plea for the swift introduction of a domestic ban.

He was followed by Francisco Cordero who added a historical angle by looking at Costa Rica’s past military experiences and the abolition of the army. He acknowledged that the Costa Rican constitution may already ban DU but argued that confirming this with a specific law would be a valuable endeavour nonetheless, particularly given the international context.

Carlos Vargas Carlos Vargas extended the historical longview by assessing how Costa Rica’s national character had evolved into one of equality and peace, ever since the appearance of the Spanish on its shores. Costa Rica was home to the first ever regional human rights court - while Europe and the US were still busy waging war – and to this day, while there may be inequalities of income, human rights, a right to peace and equality are all woven into the state’s legal fabric. For Costa Rica, the urge to ban uranium weapons does not come because of a global trend, instead disarmament is written into the genetic code of all Costa Ricans.

Jerry Campos Monge Advisor for the Legislative Assembly introduced the three basic rights enshrined in the constitution – the right to peace, the right to life and protection of the environment – and stated that human dignity is a natural condition of being. While these three rights may imply that there is an implicit ban on uranium weapons under Costa Rica’s constitutional law, it does not make in explicit. However the new law proposal can make this difference. The proposed text goes beyond this law and it is often the case that many declarations look good on paper but states can lack commitment to uphold them. He ended by saying that Mora Mora and he hope that this will help support Belgium in pushing for a global ban on uranium weapons.

Francisco Cordera Ria verjauw
Ria Verjauw and Francisco Cordero

Belgium, and its domestic ban, was the subject of Ria Verjauw’s talk. She described how they had formed a domestic coalition of 25 members from a diverse set of groups, including military trade unions and peace groups. The issue had been a relevant one, as Belgian soldiers had served in Kosovo.

The size of the coalition meant that they soon attracted cross party support and at the end of 2005, a law proposal was introduced. It was considered by the Belgian Committee on Defence and the coalition assembled experts to give evidence. The Ministry of Defence assembled their own experts who downplayed the risks. However this was not enough to stop the committee voting unanimously to support the proposal on March 7th 2007. Two weeks later the parliament also voted unanimously to support it. However it passed with the caveat that two years would pass before it entered law, to allow time for Belgium to assess the response to the issue at a global level.

The ban was only possible because of very strong public support, in part due to a history of peace in Belgium. A well connected coalition and legal precedents on mines and clusters had also helped.

Carlos Vargas and Jerry Campos
Carlos Vargas, Isabel MacDonald and Jerry Campos

In the diverse questions that followed, the most pressing was how long will it take for the law to come into force? Jerry Campos explained that the legislature is currently in a period of ‘extraordinary sessions’ until May. In this time, legislative members can introduce proposals, but it takes the President to approve them. After May, members can approve proposals. The challenge will be to persuade Oscar Arias to push this proposal through as quickly as possible. That so many representatives have already signed the law proposal and offered their support suggests that it may have a swift passage, providing Presidential support can be garnered.

Crew and speakers
ICBUW members, speakers and volunteers

There followed an at times heated debate on Costa Rican constitutional law, free trade and disarmament, before thanks were offered to all the staff and volunteers who had helped make the event a success and the closing statement was read out by Isabel MacDonald from the San Jose Quaker Peace Centre.