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2016's UN General Assembly must make progress on depleted uranium weapons

The last time the UN General Assembly debated DU, some governments preferred pedantry to progress. This month we expect better.
11 October 2016 - ICBUW

The Non-Aligned Movement General Assembly resolution Effects of the use of arms and ammunitions containing depleted uranium is biennial, with this session’s text the sixth since 2007. While its four opponents – the US, UK, France and Israel – have remained the same over the years, its content has not, having expanded to include calls for research, for transparency measures, for a precautionary approach to the use of the weapons and in 2014, for the provision of assistance to states affected by contamination.

Back in 2014, Iraq led that call for international assistance – and for a global treaty ban on the weapons – as it is still dealing with the legacy of contamination from the conflicts in 1991 and 2003. As First Committee drew to a close, US A-10 aircraft were on route to the Middle East for sorties over Iraq and Syria, and we were urgently seeking clarity over whether they would be armed with DU. It would take until March 2015 for the US to state that DU had not and would not be used against Islamic State. These assurances are now being questioned in light of recent evidence that the weapons were used on two occasions. The episode demonstrated that, in spite of the longstanding stigmatisation of the chemically toxic and radioactive weapons, the risk that they will be used again is still present.

With support for the resolutions running at 150 states or more since 2012, attention is inevitably focusing on the remaining abstainers. In spite of repeated calls from the European Parliament for a moratorium on the weapons, and for a common EU position that better reflects the view of the parliament, EU members make up a disproportionate number of those still abstaining. We were delighted that Sweden and Bulgaria voted in favour for the first time in 2014 but an otherwise productive First Committee was marred by the antics of Germany and allegations of selective quoting in the resolution.

Cherry stones
Some cherrystones, we hope to see fewer of these this year

In moving to abstain, Germany claimed to be objecting to a quote from the UN Environment Programme relating to its fieldwork in the Balkans, which the NAM had included in the text. Germany accused the NAM of cherrypicking, in spite of having sought to cherry pick language itself during consultations on the draft. In a coordinated move, the Netherlands also raised the now dubious allegation of cherrypicking in its explanation of vote – although they subsequently voted in favour. German parliamentarians and NGOs were as unimpressed as we were, and ICBUW was called to give evidence at a parliamentary hearing on the vote the following January.

Frustratingly, the sideshow in 2014 served only to detract from more serious issues – most pressing of which is the absence of formal post-conflict obligations on either DU users or affected states to address the contamination caused by the weapons. This is an area that states must tackle, and with resolutions only coming every other year, states need to stop wasting the opportunities they provide and get serious about reducing the risks DU weapons pose to civilians.  

Notes:

This article first appeared in Reaching Critical Will's First Committee Monitor: http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/disarmament-fora/unga/2016/fcm