Report from the UN seminar 'Banning Uranium Weapons - legal avenues and political cul-de-sacs'.
Last year an overwhelming majority of states backed a resolution highlighting health concerns over the use of conventional weapons containing depleted uranium and ICBUW is keen for further steps to be taken on the issue.
The event began with a short introduction to uranium weapons and ICBUW from US ICBUW member Tara Thornton. Mrs Thornton described how the properties of DU make it an attractive option for use in kinetic energy penetrators – anti-armour weapons that rely on the mass of the projectile to pierce armour instead of chemical explosives. Maps then illustrated which states hold DU stockpiles – currently more than 17 worldwide – and where DU has been used, Iraq, the Balkans and possibly in Afghanistan.
She explained that since its formation in 2003, ICBUW has grown to represent 96 NGOs in 26 countries and outlined its goals – a uranium weapons free world, identification and decontamination of sites and medical and financial assistance for communities affected by their use.
Next to take the floor was Dr Katsumi Furitsu from ICBUW’s Science Team and Japanese NGO CARE (Campaign Against Radiation Exposure). Dr Furitsu criticised the WHO and IAEA for focusing solely on lung cancer incidence and chemical toxicity to the kidney in their reports on DU; this is a result of using data on uranium miners whose exposure is markedly different to that of those exposed to DU. That both agencies also based their risk assessments on the International Basic Safety Standards (BSS) is also contentious. BSS models take a cost benefit approach to assessing risk – something that will be of little reassurance to civilians living in contaminated areas.
Dr Furitsu observed that standard radiation risk models are also based on the average man – despite pregnant women and children being much more at risk from ionising radiation. She urged that states look to the Precautionary Principle for guidance when dealing with the risks from uranium weapons.
Gretel Munroe, also an ICBUW Science Team member and member of US campaign group Grassroots Action for Peace – based in Concord Mass., the site of massive DU contamination from a manufacturing site - introduced delegates to UNEP’s studies on DU contamination.
Mrs Munroe explained the justification for UNEP’s concern over DU in groundwater in the Balkans – that being the rate at which penetrators fired from aircraft such as the A-10 ‘Warthog’ miss their targets and remain embedded in the topsoil. She described studies suggesting that DU shells corrode rapidly in many soils and are thus able to infiltrate water sources.
Moving on to Iraq, Mrs Munroe reminded delegates of UNEP’s concern over the trade in contaminated scrap metal and the lack of public health controls in post-conflict environments, controls that would normally allow for the rapid decontamination and isolation of similar sites in stable countries. Her presentation ended with a brief critique of the US’s veteran’s studies. The US Institute of Medicine has found them severely wanting due to their vanishingly small sample size and lack of control groups – yet the US continues to promote them as proof that DU is harmless.
Alyn Ware, Coordinator of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and
Disarmament (PNND) spoke in depth about the legal and political status of uranium weapons. He began by noting that while there is no specific treaty prohibiting uranium weapons, and while treaty law is much stronger than customary law, they may well breach several principles of International Humanitarian Law. For example: their impact beyond the field of conflict, impact on civilians and impact on the environment. This debate was reflected in the variety of recent reports to the Secretary General on the issue.
Mr Ware felt that the Precautionary Principle could be a useful guide when dealing with uranium weapons. The Precautionary Principle has been gradually replacing the Lotus principle (what is not specifically prohibited is permitted) and precedents have been set with regard to the use of nuclear weapons, although not conventional munitions. Nevertheless it may be reasonable to expect states to hold off on using uranium munitions until they are proven safe. He felt it likely that, because of the efficacy of uranium weapons, user states would argue vigorously that military necessity overrides IHL.
Moving onto the political status of uranium weapons, he began by discussing Belgium’s recent law banning the use or uranium in conventional weapons. This was felt to be particularly important as it sought the opinion of other states on the matter, encouraging them to enact similar laws. A similar parliamentary approach is being taken in New Zealand, although it has been held up by the imminent elections there.
A parliamentary approach was seen as being important as it brings foreign ministries into the equation. Unlike a purely administrative approach – that is inevitably influenced by defence ministries, foreign ministries introduce a wider understanding of international law and processes into the equation. Equally important is the scientific community. While there is still disagreement among international agencies over the extent of harm from DU, there is a consensus that it can be harmful.
Mr Ware then urged fresh action on humanitarian grounds, explaining that there had been little action in UN committees since 1996, when DU was found to be inhumane and indiscriminate. He suggested that the CCW could also be a valuable forum although accepted that it is good at starting the job, but less so at finishing it. However it could be the trigger for a group of states to take the issue out of the process and back it, as happened with anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions.
Mr Ware concluded by urging states to back this session’s resolution on uranium weapons, to be submitted by Cuba.
Ria Verjauw of the Belgian coalition ‘Stop Uranium Wapens’ introduced delegations to the European Parliament’s recent resolution on uranium weapons, which called for a moratorium, an international treaty, monitoring of contaminated sites and victim assistance. It had passed by 491 votes to 18, with 12 abstentions. In a statement to UN delegations MEPs had written:
“The fight for a worldwide ban on uranium in weapons and ammunition is part of our general fight for arms control and disarmament. Uranium weapons cause indiscriminate harm. It is crucial to act against violations of humanitarian, international and environmental law. We hope the EC, Council and Member States demonstrate in practice their sense of responsibility, given that this is a matter of public health.”
Mrs Verjauw then introduced delegates to the position taken by EUROMIL, the umbrella organisation for European military unions that has repeatedly made calls for a ban, citing the health concerns of its members and concerns over civilian populations.
The session was concluded by an appeal for action from ICBUW Coordinator Doug Weir. Noting the increasing political momentum for action on the issue over the last three years, Mr Weir painted the issue in the broader context of toxic remnants of war, stating that action now will limit the future proliferation of other uranium weapon systems. Accepting that some evidence remains contentious, he explained that there is more than enough data to support action on a precautionary basis.
“We do not ask for you to be radical – because striving for a ban simply is not radical. Limiting the use of chemically toxic and radioactive materials in warfare should not be contentious.”
He pledged that ICBUW would work closely with all states and was not intent on naming, shaming or embarrassing users of DU. He called for those present to offer their expert assistance in striving for a ban treaty; and explained that although few states use DU weapons, this should not been seen as an excuse for inaction, instead a spur for action now to limit the future impact of uranium weapons.
Mr Weir said that the experience of the cluster munition coalition has shown that conventional arms control can succeed and that as economic and environmental pressures increase, it is more important than ever that the international community work together. He then called for financial assistance for scientific surveys in affected countries, noting that UNEP has only produced a desk study on Iraq since the 2003 invasion.
He ended by cautiously suggesting that by 2011, the 20th anniversary of the first major use of uranium weapons, the international community should be in a position to take concrete and spirited steps towards tackling what is an indiscriminate, inhumane and ultimately unnecessary weapon.
The papers supporting the seminar are available online in PDF format. See the links below.
The presentations and speeches from this event are available in our resources section.