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UN General Assembly backs help for depleted uranium clean-up

150 states have supported a UN General Assembly resolution recognising the need for international assistance for countries affected by depleted uranium contamination.
2 December 2014 - ICBUW

In a second vote on the UN’s fifth resolution on DU weapons at the General Assembly in New York, 150 states have supported a call for the international community to provide assistance to states affected by DU contamination. The resolution comes five months after Iraq called for help from the international community in dealing with the legacy of the 1991 and 2003 conflicts.

UNGA14 results

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“We view this resolution as a welcome step towards establishing an obligation on DU clearance,” said ICBUW Coordinator Doug Weir. “The need for remedial work to protect civilians has been identified by the World Health Organisation, UK Royal Society and UN Environment Programme – the ongoing refusal by the US and UK to take responsibility for their actions is placing communities at risk.”

The vote was preceded by the news that US A10 gunships capable of firing DU had arrived in Kuwait to support operations against ISIS. The Pentagon had previously confirmed that the US would use DU in Iraq again ‘if it needed to’ – the controversial decision, made in spite of Iraq’s 2014 call for clean-up help and a global treaty ban on the weapons, further underscores the need for tougher action on the weapons.

Unlike anti-personnel land mines, cluster munitions and other explosive remnants of war there are no formal clearance obligations in place to protect civilians following the use of DU weapons. The new resolution, and the US decision to deploy the weapons once again in Iraq, have helped highlight this disparity. The experiences of the Balkans and Iraq suggest that even without a treaty ban on the weapons, the protection of civilians requires an obligation that ensures transparency over targeting, robust independent environmental and health assessments, and international assistance to remove contamination.

UNGA14 results Support for the resolution, which is sponsored by Indonesia on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement has been rising steadily since it was first tabled in 2007. The last vote took place in 2012 and attracted the support of 155 states. This year saw Sweden and Bulgaria support the resolution for the first time, having moved from abstentions. Germany angered campaigners by moving to an abstention after many years in favour, providing little in the way of a meaningful justification. The vote was opposed by just four states – the US, UK, France and Israel. The apparent decrease in support from 155 to 150 was due to several states not being present for the vote.

The US, and to a lesser extent the UK bear responsibility for the use of DU in Iraq and the US in particular continues to obstruct efforts to clean-up sites by refusing to transfer targeting data to the Iraqi authorities, UN agencies and demining organisations. In a recent letter to US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, Congressman Jim McDermott argued that: “Acting on this issue now will prevent future political and societal costs. In the past our government has had to invest significant resources to mitigate the unintended ramifications of weapons systems such as Agent Orange and cluster munitions. Removing the physical manifestations of our military legacy in Iraq would help foster mutual understanding, vital to our future strategy in the country.”

PAX’s Wim Zwijnenburg, who has studied the legacy of DU use in Iraq, said: “The international community must heed Iraq’s call for assistance in dealing with contamination. The lack of transparency is making clean-up and civilian assistance next to impossible. We have documented DU use against a far wider range of targets than acknowledged by the US, many of which were in populated areas. Iraq’s Ministry of the Environment has highlighted clean-up of DU as a priority and international support is urgently needed. The voices of those affected deserve a larger role in the debate over the acceptability of DU weapons.”

As with previous years the resolution also called for greater transparency from users and for a precautionary approach to the weapons, in recognition of their potential health and environmental effects and persistent uncertainties in the health risks they pose and their environmental behaviour. A further addition this year was a call for further research specifically in conflict settings – an area where more data is urgently needed.