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United Nations highlights cost and difficulty of tackling depleted uranium contamination

Depleted uranium once again on the UN's agenda as a new resolution is tabled that serves to remind the international community of the absence of rules governing its post-conflict management.
19 October 2016 - ICBUW

L63

A resolution submitted to the United Nations General Assembly’s First Committee draws attention to the technical and financial barriers that countries affected by the use of depleted uranium face following conflicts when they seek to clear contamination. The resolution also reminds governments that states, communities, health experts and civil society organisations remain profoundly concerned about the health and environmental risks that the weapons can pose.

The resolution is the sixth on the topic to be tabled at the General Assembly since 2007. Shortly before the last resolution was debated in 2014, Iraq called for assistance from the international community in addressing the legacy of DU use in the country in 1991 and 2003. The 2014 resolution, which was supported by 150 states, called on member states to provide such assistance. Disappointingly, assistance has not been forthcoming in the interim and the appalling security situation in Iraq has hampered efforts to assess and clear sites.

“Managing DU contamination to internationally accepted standards is complex, time-consuming and costly,” said ICBUW Coordinator Doug Weir. “Research has repeatedly shown that most countries recovering from conflict are poorly placed to implement these vital risk reduction measures, which are recommended by UN agencies, and it is civilians who all too often pay the cost of inaction.” Part of the problem lies in the fact that unlike land mines and cluster munitions, there are no formal obligations, on either those countries that use the weapons, or are affected by them, to clear them after conflicts.

Previous resolutions have passed by huge majorities, with just four states consistently voting against and, while it is unlikely that the UK, US, France and Israel will vote in favour this year, overall the number of governments abstaining has been on a downward trend since 2007. As a result, there is increasing focus on the likes of Canada, Denmark and a number of EU governments who refuse to vote yes, often on extremely dubious grounds.

However, it is Germany that many will be watching. In 2014, the German government abstained on the DU resolution for the first time, triggering a backlash from German parliamentarians and civil society. A parliamentary question urging the government to vote yes was tabled in September by the Green Party. “Germany has got to accept that the potential hazards from DU contamination are widely accepted by the UN agencies that recommend remedial measures, and by their own military, who take a precautionary approach to DU in their own guidelines,” said PAX’s Wim Zwijnenburg. “Doubtless the German authorities would take steps to prevent civilian harm if DU were dispersed in Germany, why should it be different for other countries following conflicts?”

What will the resolution achieve?

The resolutions do not seek to ban DU weapons, however they do underscore the fact that the overwhelming majority of governments object to their use. Each resolution is also helping to define soft norms around some of the most problematic issues surrounding DU. One of these, the need for DU users to share data on where they fire the weapons, has featured since 2010, and its importance was highlighted by a recent report from PAX and ICBUW over DU use in the 2003 Iraq War. The report showed that more than half the DU fired by the US is still unaccounted for, and that the refusal of the US to release data to UN agencies hampered their post-conflict assessments.

Voting on the resolution will take place in early November. A second vote will take place in early December. You can follow the debate on social media using #FirstCommittee and by following @ICBUW   

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