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The politics behind the vote on 2014’s UN depleted uranium resolution

Wim Zwijnenburg takes a behind the scenes look at how Germany came to abstain on the recent UN resolution on DU weapons.
4 November 2014 - Wim Zwijnenburg

On October 31st, the United Nations First Committee voted on resolution A/1/69 L.43: ‘the use and effects of arms and ammunitions containing depleted uranium’. It was passed with 143 votes in favour, four against and with 26 states abstaining. Before and after the vote, several states provided an explanation of vote (EOV). In EOVs submitted by the US/UK/France, Germany and the Netherlands, it was suggested that a reference to UNEP's call for a ‘precautionary approach’  to the use of DU weapons by the drafters of the resolution was 'selective and misleading' (Germany) or amounted to 'cherrypicking' (US/UK/France) of a report UNEP provided to the UN in 2010. 

Cherry picking

But what did UNEP actually say in their report, how did one part end up in the resolution and what actually happened during the negotiations over the resolution in 2012?

Each of the last four resolutions has requested that states and relevant international organisations submit their views on DU to the UN Secretary General in advance of debate on the subsequent resolution. In 2010, a report was submitted by UNEP which contained six paragraphs on DU and on the organisation’s experiences in the field.

The first paragraph explained that DU is a ‘chemically and radiologically toxic heavy metal’, that after use penetrator fragments, and jackets or casings can be found lying on the surface or buried at varying depth, leading to the potential contamination of air, soil, water and vegetation from depleted uranium residue.’ The second paragraph described UNEP's work on DU in the Balkans. The third described their cooperation with the IAEA and the WHO. The fourth, which was quoted in the UN resolution in both 2012 and 2014, described the outcome of UNEPs work in the Balkans. Note that this does not relate to work in Iraq, where far more DU was used. That fourth paragraph reads as follows:

‘The main scientific findings were consistent across the three assessments [Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina]. Measurements taken at the depleted uranium sites showed that, even in areas with widespread depleted uranium contamination, the overall levels of radioactivity were low and within acceptable international standards, with no immediate dangers from either particle-based or waterborne toxicity. However, major scientific uncertainties persisted regarding the long-term environmental impacts of depleted uranium, particularly with respect to long-term groundwater contamination. Because of these scientific uncertainties, UNEP called for a precautionary approach to the use of depleted uranium, and recommended that action be taken to clean up and decontaminate the polluted sites. It also called for awareness-raising among local populations and future monitoring.’

Paragraph five described UNEP’s support to the Iraqi Ministry of the Environment in 2005/2006 and paragraph six stated that UNEP hopes its work will ‘help countries to address potential risks related to the contamination of air, soil, water and vegetation from the use of depleted uranium in times of conflict, and stands ready to provide further assistance upon request.’

Was paragraph four ‘selectively quoted’ and how did it end up in the resolution?

The resolution texts tabled in 2012 and 2014 have in their preambles the following quote: ‘Recalling that the UNEP, in its report to the Secretary-General on the subject [2010] affirms that major scientific uncertainties persist regarding the long-term environmental impacts of depleted uranium, particularly with respect to long-term groundwater contamination, and calls for a precautionary approach to the use of depleted uranium’.

Its inclusion in the text was the product of intense negotiations. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which drafted the resolution, had included it as a representative summary of UNEP’s views but Germany objected. In the conversations that I had with Germany during negotiations they claimed that that the quote didn't reflect the whole text, and was selective. And here comes the interesting part. Instead of going with the summary suggested by the NAM, Germany instead wanted only the first two sentences of paragraph four in. So Germany only wanted the following text: ‘The main scientific findings were consistent across the three assessments. Measurements taken at the depleted uranium sites showed that, even in areas with widespread depleted uranium contamination, the overall levels of radioactivity were low and within acceptable international standards, with no immediate dangers from either particle-based or waterborne toxicity.’  Who's selective now?

So as a compromise, we suggested that the NAM include the whole paragraph, also including the final one and a half sentences: ‘and recommended that action be taken to clean up and decontaminate the polluted sites. It also called for awareness-raising among local populations and future monitoring.’  But Germany refused this as well. Because of this, the NAM decided to go with their original language calling for a precautionary approach.

Was the selection of that text on the precautionary approach fair? We believe so, and for the following reasons:

  • UNEP has consistently called for a precautionary approach in all their reports, be they in the Balkans or Iraq. This is justified on the basis of DU’s characteristics and environmental behaviour, the potential for civilian exposure, the difficulty of cleaning it up, as well as the scientific uncertainties related to the variability in contamination.
  • Every IAEA member state accepts strict guidelines on the management of low and intermediate radioactive waste, and as DU is qualified by the IAEA as such, all measures should be taken to prevent civilian exposure to it. Hence, precaution and protection are part of the domestic standards followed by IAEA member states.
  • States that deploy military personnel to areas where DU is used, or is suspected to have been used, such as Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, the US and the UK provide their troops with precautionary guidance to avoid exposure. 
  • The reports on the Balkans dealt with situations where fairly modest amounts of DU were used and the studies were undertaken between three and seven years after it was deployed. They also only relate to contamination from 30mm ammunition and to climatic and soil conditions that may allow the rapid weathering of fragments. The number of sites they could access was also limited by the presence of mines and cluster munitions.  However in Iraq, an arid environment where more than 400,000kg of DU was fired, a significant amount of which may have been in densely populated areas, the situation is very different. Unlike the Balkans, thousands of tanks and armoured vehicles were contaminated; these ended up on scrap metal sites to be stripped by both local people and workers, with more risk of exposure. In Iraq, DU munitions were left on and in the soil, and in arid conditions weathering is slow, as the IAEA has demonstrated in Kuwait. Thus civilian exposure and persistent environmental contamination seem far more likely in the case of Iraq.

A regrettable situation

So where does this leave the resolution? States such as Germany that abstained, and the Netherlands, which voted in favour and that provided an EoV stating that the UNEP quote was 'selective' are a) missing the whole point of the UNEP quote and b) seem happy to cherrypick themselves when it suits them.

Their current position therefore is not based on the facts, nor is it inspired by the protection of civilians and the environment. Instead it is a political choice to avoid taking a position in opposition to, or offending, those who vote against the resolutions – the UK, US, France and Israel. Beyond demonstrating a lack of understanding of the issue, the coordinated nature of the EoVs suggests a campaign of pressure from DU users on the abstainers, which is extremely regrettable. It is worth remembering that this resolution will not ban DU weapons – it calls for focused research, transparency, assistance and, controversially, precaution.

Only by pushing for research, transparency over the use of DU and actual support for clean-up, as requested by the most affected state, Iraq, will the international community be able to get any clarity in this highly politicised debate.