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Report From Belgian Day of Action 2006

On the 3rd November, members of the Belgian Coalition and activists of several member organisations gathered in Brussels for the International Day of Action against uranium weapons.
14 December 2006 - Ria Verjauw and David Heller

The day began with a visit to the Ministry of Defence where a visual action was set up with banners saying: For a Ban on Uranium Weapons, Stop Uranium Wapens, Pour un Monde Sans Armes a ‘l’Uranium andVoor Een Wereld Zonder Uranium Wapens. The event attracted a lot of media attention; with Brussels and Flemish radio broadcast interviews. French and Flemish speaking TV channels were also in attendance.

Belgian Coalition Members Make Themselves Heard Outside the Belgian Ministry of Defense

A delegation from the Belgian Coalition then entered the Ministry of Defence with Senator Lionel Van den Berghe. Several other senators were excused, as were Members of the House of Representatives Aarens and Van der Maelen, who have introduced domestic law proposals to ban uranium weapons.

Reports were handed over to the assistants and advisors of the Minister of Defence who were present: Depleted uranium: all the questions about DU and Gulf War Syndrome are not yet answered by Dr Rosalie Bertell, Depleted uranium update: October 2006 by Dr Keith Baverstock, Military Reports compiled by Willem Van den Panhuysen and NATO’s own Security Principles for Storage and Transportation of Military Munitions and Explosives. We also presented a letter demanding that the Belgian government take a clear position on the DU issue.

The advisors and assistants were questioned about the attitude of the Minister towards a legal ban on uranium weapons. Advisor Grega answered that the Belgian Parliament should do its work, and that the Ministry will accept the decisions that are made by them. The Ministry of Defense has not been asked to give advice to Parliament on the issue.

Following the Israeli attack on Lebanon, the Ministry of Defence have sent two members of their medical staff to the country to investigate the possible use of DU. The Belgian Military personnel in Lebanon each have a Geiger counter to measure radioactivity. As of the 3rd November nothing had been found that could indicate that DU was used. They don’t know about the results of the research at the Khiam crater.

Questions were then asked about the exclusion of DU from their research into Balkan Syndrome. We found that the results of investigations on DU contamination amongst soldiers are exchanged between different European countries and UNEP; it also emerged that only urine samples of Belgian Military personnel are subject to tests and that no blood samples have been taken. When questioned about DNA damage in service personnel, the Ministry claimed that there is a conflict between scientists on whether it is an indication of DU exposure. A remark was made by one of the Coalition members that personnel working in the non-ferrous metal industry are monitored and their urine and blood is tested for heavy metal contamination; but why not in the military, as DU is a heavy metal?

According to an expert at the Ministry, tests in the nuclear industry are also done by urine tests, and not by blood tests; they said that there is more chance of finding something in the urine than in the blood when investigating ‘no-weight’, nearly undetectable substances. The expert claimed that you need one litre of blood to have a reasonable chance of finding DU in it.

The Ministry keeps a database of information from military personnel from before and after each mission. The Ministry was asked if they also do follow up studies on personnel that have left the army but they could not answer this. They claimed that the Belgian Ministry of Defence takes more preventative measures following the Balkan wars and according to their information, there were no soldiers contaminated with DU. All urine samples tested for DU were negative.

Questions were asked on the possible synergetic effects of the chemical and radiological characteristics of DU. The Ministry answered in a general way that there are different interpretations of the damaging effects of DU. Some consider that damage starts at very low exposure levels. Others think that damage only starts from a certain level of exposure to a harmful substance. Still others claim that damage is linearly related to exposure.

Belgian activist outside the MoD

In the afternoon a delegation from the Belgian Coalition was received at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Minister himself was excused because of a mission abroad. Four of his assistants/advisors welcomed the delegation. The main topic for the meeting was the request to put ICBUW’s resolution on the agenda of the UN General Assembly in September next year. Belgian was a co-sponsor of the resolution on the arms trade that was on the agenda of the General Assembly of the UN last September.

According to the Ministry, Belgium is a small country that cannot take a position on its own, and Belgium should be careful in taking steps in disarmament issues, recalling the ban on types of cluster munitions in the recent past. They agreed to look at the possibilities, and possibly to put it on the agenda in a later phase. We pointed out that other countries might be interested in putting the issue on the UN’s agenda. And we asked for a meeting with the Minister of Foreign Affairs himself to discuss this issue in the very near future. Following the hearing in the Belgian Parliament, the Ministry is prepared to play a diplomatic role if necessary. We reminded the assistants/advisors about the role that Belgium can play now that it is a non-permanent member of the Security Council of the UN. Belgium can influence certain issues and speak on a higher level because of this membership.

We asked whether Belgium would agree to back epidemiological studies into the effects of DU in southern Iraq, since DU has been used there repeatedly during the last 15 years. They said that they have no budget for this, and that it is a task for others. They have the task to realise conflict-prevention so why don’t we ask the IAEA instead?

Turning to the proposed Belgian legal ban on DU weapons, we emphasised the importance of Belgium taking the lead in banning DU. According to the advisors from the Ministry, the Minister can not intervene in parliamentary work, since parliament is autonomous. If someone from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is asked, they will give advice. But they can only advise on what effects a ban would have on Belgium.

The Ministry was then questioned on the Lebanese issue. Would Belgium take the initiative and research the possible use of DU? They told us that they will wait for the results of the UNEP report that will be published in December. They could not answer when we asked whether the Minister had questioned Israel over the use of DU weapons, however the Ministry did question Israel on the use of landmines during the occupation. If Israel has been questioned over its use of DU, then it is likely that it will be kept secret from the public.

The Ministry still thinks that more scientific research into DU is needed; and until then Belgium will not throw its weight behind a ban. Challenging them, we reminded them about the many studies, including military studies, over the last few years that have suggested a link between DU exposure and ill health. We presented them with the NATO-expert manual (August 1992) on the health risks relating to the management of accidents with DU munitions, their storage and transportation. Copies of the studies by Drs Bertell and Baverstock were also presented along with Military Reports.

The Belgian Coalition members expressed their wish that the Minister look more carefully at the studies and files and become aware of the importance of this issue. A new meeting (hopefully with the Minister) will be made in the near future. In the late afternoon all participants of the action day gathered at the Beurs Building in the centre of Brussels. They positioned themselves on the stairs with the banners while others collected signatures and handed out leaflets to passers by.