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Report: UN First Committee side event on depleted uranium weapons

Brooke Fisher of PAX reports on ICBUW and PAX's UN First Committee side event: Depleted uranium: new research from laboratory and battlefield, which took place on October 23rd in New York.
24 October 2014 - Brooke Fisher

Workshop audience
Photos courtesy of Shant Alexander.

This extremely well attended side event was hosted by the Permanent Mission of Norway to the UN, in cooperation with the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW) and PAX. The speakers were Dr. Katsumi Furitsu (ICBUW-Japan), Doug Weir (ICBUW) and Wim Zwijnenburg from PAX. PAX’s Alexandra Hiniker moderated the discussion.

Following an introduction by Halvor Sætre, Minister Counsellor of the Norwegian Mission, Doug Weir began by explaining what depleted uranium (DU) weapons are and how a compelling body of research from peer-reviewed studies now demonstrates that DU can damage DNA and cause cancer, many of which have emerged in the last decade. Increased rates of cancer and congenital birth defects have been reported in civilians living in proximity to sites contaminated by DU. Weir emphasized that, while studies into the effects of DU have been performed in laboratories and in small groups of veterans exposed during deployment, there is a lack of studies dealing with civilian exposure to DU. This lack of civilian exposure studies is in part due to the difficulty of locating contaminated sites due to the lack of transparency regarding targeting.

Weir concluded by highlighting the need for full disclosure of targeting coordinates, the need for funding and support for civilian exposure studies, a warning that the history of DU use and research demonstrates how precaution must guide future munitions development, and emphasizing that the use of DU munitions must be stopped.

Speakers at DU workshop
Panel, l-r: Halvor Sætre, Alexandra Hiniker, Wim Zwijnenburg, Doug Weir, Dr Katsumi Furitsu.

Dr. Furitsu, a medical geneticist and expert on radiation and health, welcomed the call for a precautionary approach to the weapons in 2012's UN resolution. This year's addition of new language on state assistance was also a very welcome development. She reiterated that, as DU is a radioactive material which emits alpha radiation, it can be harmful to both the environment and civilian populations wherever it is utilized. The best practice moving forward is to prevent civilian exposure by ending the use of DU weapons.

Wim Zwijnenburg spoke about his experience mapping DU contamination and civilian health concerns in Iraq. He spoke of the challenges faced by post-conflict countries in marshalling the resources and expertise necessary to tackle DU contamination in a safe and effective manner. This included domestic political challenges, such as a lack of resources and expertise, and technological and logistical difficulties.

Zwijnenburg then discussed the impact that the presence of DU has on communities in contaminated areas, focusing on the prevalence of illness in these areas and the interactions that civilians have with DU, such as through scrap metal collection or by playing on contaminated sites. He spoke of the difficulties of raising public awareness without creating panic. Zwijnenburg ended his talk recommending efforts to support capacity building in post-conflict countries, the need for further research on civilian exposure, and the need for transparency regarding where DU has been used

The conversation highlighted the need to both end the use of DU weapons, and to deal with the existing legacy of DU contamination. The panelists called for further studies to help understand the effects of DU on civilians, transparency regarding over historical DU use and ultimately the need to prevent further civilian DU exposure by ending its use in weapons.

Notes:

ICBUW and PAX would like to thank the Permanent Mission of Norway to the United Nations in New York for sponsoring the event and assisting with its delivery. Many thanks also to Shant Alexander.