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Report: Expert debate on Uranium Weapons, November 2004

On November 6, 2004, ICBUW Netherlands organised an expert debate on uranium weapons at the Asser Institute, The Hague, featuring Dr. Keith Baverstock (former Head of the WHO Radiation Protection Division) and Dr. Manfred Mohr (EU Affairs Officer, Red Cross Germany, Founding Member of IALANA).

By Henk van der Keur & Lizzy Bloem
28 September 2006 - RISQ

Two years ago, the UN General Assembly declared November 6 as the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment and Armed Conflict. A number of groups around the world have already twice rose to the occasion of this international day, to organise a more specific day, namely the International Day of Action to Ban Uranium Weapons.

On the occasion, ICBUW Netherlands organised an expert debate at the TMC Asser Institute in The Hague. Two speakers were invited: Keith Baverstock to speak about uranium weapons from the viewpoint of a scientist and Manfred Mohr from the viewpoint of a lawyer. Both raised concerns about the use of uranium weapons and suggested possible lines of action. Mr Wim van den Burg, Chair of the Dutch trade union for military personnel AFMP/FNV, and Ms Krista van Velzen, Member of Parliament for the Socialist Party were invited to respond.

The debate was facilitated by Maarten H.J. van den Berg, director of RISQ (Review of International Social Questions) and sponsored by Oxfam Netherlands.

Health Risks Underestimated

The ICRP and the IAEA ignore scientific evidence about depleted uranium hazards As depleted uranium (DU) is a toxic and radioactive substance, Dr. Baverstock has concerns about military and public health. No scientific research is known about the long term effects on people living in an environment that is contaminated with the dust from burned depleted uranium. This material does not occur naturally, so no comparisons can be made.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the International Commission on Radiation Protection (ICRP) are the two organisations that deal in risk calculation or risk estimation. In the last decades several new scientific insights on the relation between DU dust and health have been widely accepted within the scientific community. According to Keith Baverstock, the IAEA and the ICRP choose to ignore this evidence, such as the chemical toxicity on the genome, the synergistic effects of chemical toxicity and radiation, the bystander effect, the difference in solubility of different dust particles and finally field research is ignored and they stick with their untested models.

Although the IAEA and ICRP don't say that there is no risk, they say the risk is very small and acceptable. They make that decision on the behalf of those who take the risk, not on the behalf of themselves. They choose not to interpret new findings, not to include it in their calculations. This is an issue of independence. There is no doubt that there is political pressure from countries on UN organisations, and possibly also on the ICRP, and this political pressure is particularly true for the UK and the US. This pressure coming from the economic side is driving the system away from independence, and gives deliberate blind eyes.

The Rationale of a Draft Convention

Dr. Manfred Mohr and his colleges of IALANA have formulated a The Draft Convention to Ban Uranium Weapons. If there is proof of health damage using DU ammunition, legal arguments and consequences have to be applied. Therefore one needs to have a Treaty Regime, a supervising mechanism.

The use and reasoning of the Draft Convention is diverse, and parallel with other possible lines of action.

1. The Draft Convention is a certain scheme of argumentation and evaluation on DU use. Parallel it has the effect of awareness raising. If lawyers see an article, they are fixed. It gives ICBUW a certain strength. The Draft Treaty gives more substance to the discussion, which is sometimes ideological, emotional, extremist?s positions are taken even among the movement against this kind of weaponry, there are suspicions, there are fractions and tensions.

2. Because scientists do not agree on the severity of the DU problem, the only solution is to have a Treaty, an outcome of the precautionary principle.

3. The Draft Convention is the basis for approaching politicians, experts, people in ministries etc.

4. The DU topic is small compared with the nuclear weapons issue, another reason for having this Draft Convention.

Platforms to implement the Draft Convention

The UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights has discussed the DU issue for years, but is in fact not the right place to table such a Draft on disarmament law. The Sub-Commission is dealing with violation of human rights. One can take the DU case as a violation of human rights, but this is only one aspect. The more convincing arguments come from international humanitarian law, so the Sub-Commission is not the perfect forum to do this.

The UN General Assembly has the First Committee which is really the right place. The First Committee is on political disarmament issues, and they have voted on two Draft Resolutions in 2001 and 2002 on DU. Finally both resolutions were rejected.

In the European Union two resolutions for a moratorium on uranium weapons were adopted by the European Parliament. One in January 2001, and one in February 2003. The follow-up discussion in the respective committees is still going on, but the media interest like in 2001 has disappeared.

In January 2001 the Council of Europe also adopted a resolution by the Parliamentary Assembly that even called for a ban on uranium weapons.

NATO sees no problem with the DU ammunition and using it but, even though around 2001, there were hints that some problems may occur.

The dynamics of other parallel action

One of the counter arguments ICBUW is facing from other people within the movement is the believe that a Treaty would be counterproductive and that the big powers would never sign or ratify. If one should accept this argument, also the International Criminal Court and the Ottawa process wouldn't have been there. One starts small with a Draft, one meets a lot of resistance, also amongst legal colleges, but once a Treaty is open for signature, a certain dynamism may invite a lot of parties to it. But of course there is a lot of resistance, for example because people could be captured outside certain areas and put on trial.

There have been court cases both in the UK and in Italy where veterans or their families have been given an allowance, a financial substitute for the risks that they have been running, and the medical situation they have been in. But according to Dr. Mohr they aren't really court cases, but a sort of compensation, not provided on legal basis. Ahead now is a court case pending at the UK Supreme Court in December, the Richard David case, in the highest court in the UK. He is a uranium worker, so this is not a military case, which is more interesting from a legal point of view. International cases are needed too.

Another possible line of action to ban uranium weapons is confronting the military and governments with the real cost of the use of DU. The military will in the end only act out of self-concern and self-preservation. In the years to come many soldiers will claim money from their governments because they should have looked upon this issue more seriously. The military must be convinced that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. And at the moment they haven't had any cost. The cost isn't even clear, we don't know what the long term costs are. Also they don't have hardly to pay for the material, so it is a very cheap and easy solution. Only when the cost is clear, the military will realise that the disadvantages outweigh the profits of their industrial relations.

Trade Union: Uranium weapons should be banned

One of the members of the panel was Wim van den Burg. He is chairman of the Dutch trade union for military personnel AFMP/FNV, and a member of the European Trade Union Coorporation, the ETUC, and a member of EUROMIL, the largest European platform for associations of military personnel. The association's policy and activities are based on two fundamental concepts: employment and income, and are therefore indirectly also concerned with for instance the environment, health care and discrimination.

The trade union is interfering in the discussion about the military use of depleted uranium. For the union it is clear that DU is a serious problem for soldiers, civilians and the environment. The Dutch trade union has been confronted with mysterious illness of their members for the first time in 1996. At the beginning of 2000, Belgian, Spanish, Potugese and Italian soldiers who joined UN operations in the Balkans, had mysterious illness symptoms too. A group of 6 AFMP/FNV members have already died due to different kind of cancers. In January 2001, NATO finally reports that there is no connection between cancer and contamination with DU.

Does this mean that the attention of the mistrust of the AFMP/FNV about danger of DU is gone According to Wim van den Burg, certainly not. It would not be very wise to ignore results of scientific research about DU, only because scientists do not agree. The viewpoint of the ICRP about DU dust is in the opinion of the union at least premature. The union considers contamination with DU dust to present a serious potential hazard to health. The Dutch armed forces do not have weapons with DU, however Dutch soldiers are more and more confronted with the risks of DU because they have joined operations with the allies in Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia and Iraq.

Of course the United States and the United Kingdom possess and have used these weapons. In that manner, it is frightening to ascertain, that we not always can trust the information of our allies. The Dutch Minister of Defence, Henk Kamp, explained that he was incorrect and incomplete informed by his American college about the presence of DU in al-Muthanna. My conclusion is, first of all we must ban the military use of DU weapons.

Dutch government: changing point of view

Another member of the panel was Krista van Velzen, a Dutch Member of Parliament for the Socialist Party. She sees a changing point of view within the Dutch government in the last 5 years. The government started with saying that there is no proof for the health hazards of depleted uranium and was not interested in discussing this subject. Nowadays, the Dutch government is actually calling for a temporary ban, a moratorium. Even though there is still contrast in the scientific value of the proof that has been offered by people like Keith Baverstock and others, there is still no real debate. A sponsor country for the Treaty has to be found soon.