We urgently need transparency over depleted uranium use
Recent research and a tide of media coverage are indicating that something is very wrong in the Iraqi city of Fallujah. The rates of certain cancers and birth malformations seem to be far higher than those of other countries in the region. Such is the level of concern, that the World Health Organisation is currently undertaking research in the city, elsewhere experts are trying to gauge whether environmental factors may be responsible. One such risk factor could be the possible use of uranium weapons in the US Marine-led assault on Fallujah in 2004.
Marines dismount from amphibious assault vehicles during attack on Fallujah.
Unfortunately, one major obstacle is standing in the way of these assessments – the refusal by the US to release data on exactly where the weapons have been used and in what quantities.
At present, states that use uranium weapons do not have to disclose quantitative or geographical data about their use – no where, no how much, nothing. There are no norms governing the recording of data and nothing to say that it should be transferred between states. Indeed states are currently under no obligation to assist either each other - or the United Nations’ agencies for that matter - in identifying, marking, assessing, monitoring or clearing sites contaminated by uranium weapons. This is completely unacceptable.
That exposure to uranium weapons has the potential to cause ill health is generally accepted. The main question remaining is how that risk is influenced by military, geographical, social and other factors. More research is urgently needed into civilian populations living in contaminated areas and right now the single biggest obstacle researchers face continues to be the lack of transparency from users.
Transparency was identified as a priority by the UK Royal Society’s Depleted Uranium Working Group as far back as 2003: “The coalition needs to make clear where and how much depleted uranium was used in the recent conflict in Iraq. We need this information to identify civilians and soldiers who should be monitored for depleted uranium exposure and to begin a clean-up of the environment,” said Prof. Brian Spratt in 2003.
What steps have been taken since then to release this data? In Iraq, we know that at least 440,000kg of DU was used by the US and UK in 1991 and 2003. Of this, only the firing coordinates of 1.9 tonnes are known, after the British cooperated with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in a 2007 study in Iraq. However this data from the UK has never been released into the public domain.
In Bosnia, it took six years for NATO to confirm that it had used depleted uranium in its interventions in 1994 and 1995. In the case of Serbia and Kosovo, it took two direct interventions by the then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on behalf of UNEP to persuade NATO to release its data.
Given that the main factor in reducing the risk to civilians following the use of uranium weapons is the swift identification and marking of contaminated sites, the current situation seems particularly perverse.
ICBUW has approached the US State Department and Department of Defence requesting the full disclosure of data about all contaminated sites in Iraq. If it is possible for the UK to disclose where it has used uranium weapons then there is no reason why the same should not go for the US. However, if the example of our request to reveal whether uranium were used in Fallujah is anything to go by – nine months and counting – we may be waiting some time; just as the people of Iraq have been.
There are also long-standing questions over the use of depleted uranium in other conflicts. For example, Russia and the US may have both used it in Afghanistan while the US is alleged to have used it during interventions in Somalia in the 1990s.
If states are unwilling to voluntarily release data on the use of uranium weapons, it is beholden on the international community to agree to take whatever steps necessary to develop binding rules governing what happens to these weapons once they are fired.
ICBUW is calling for a resolution on this issue at the UN First Committee this autumn. We hope that states that have pushed for transparency in other areas of arms control such as the Netherlands, and those that have cooperated with UNEP on the issue of uranium weapons, such as the UK, will lend their support because without transparency, civilians will continue to be exposed to the harmful residue of these weapons.