Why the UK should vote for the UN resolution calling for greater transparency and technical assistance for clearing Depleted Uranium munitions
The health risks of DU and its use by UK forces
Depleted Uranium (DU) is radioactive waste left over from the process of enriching uranium. It is incredibly dense so is effective when used as armour piecing munitions. Additionally, as it pierces through armour it combusts and fragments ignite and separate, causing molten parts to disperse inside the armoured vehicle. UK armed forces use DU anti-tank rounds in combat, and expended a total of 1.9 tonnes during the 2003 invasion. The UK has test fired a total of 36 tonnes of DU ammunition into the Solway Firth in Scotland.
DU is radioactive and a chemically toxic heavy metal. As DU combusts upon striking a hard target, the area nearby is covered in a fine dust which may be inhaled or ingested. Field work by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has shown that this contamination is still detectable several years after use and that in one site DU had contaminated a local well. Laboratory studies show that estimations of health risks from DU inhalation may be underestimates; that DU in drinking water can disrupt hormones and cause fertility problems; that it can still be present in urine 20 years after exposure through inhalation; that it is a potential carcinogen and can cause leukaemia in mice.
DU round with sabot separating
Numerous reports have indicated higher rates of childhood leukaemia and birth defects in the Iraqi cities of Basra and Fullujah, where extensive fighting was seen in the invasion and occupation by Coalition forces. However, as no full scale epidemiological study has taken place it is impossible to determine the exact cause of these public health epidemics.
The UK, to its credit, has demonstrated some precaution and responsibility over its DU use by providing coordinates where DU rounds have been fired and have part-funded a UNEP study into the effects of DU on civilian populations in Iraq. The UNEP conclusions called for greater transparency over where DU rounds have been fired and for the monitoring of pubic health in these areas. However despite this, we still do not know where 440 tonnes of DU were fired in Iraq, principally by US forces, because unlike cluster bombs and land-mines there is no legal obligation on States to release this information.
The principle criticism of DU use is that without adequate clean up, the lands occupied by innocent civilians are contaminated by highly toxic remnants of war, putting their health at risk. This harms the invading and occupying forces attempts to win hearts and minds, putting the occupation forces at risk of reprisal attacks.
The UK were one of only four states to vote against 141 others calling for further studies into DU at a UN General Assembly vote
International concern over DU and the UK’s response
In 2007 Belgium became the first country in the world to ban all conventional weapons containing uranium. Later that year 136 member states of the UN voted for a resolution that accepted that DU was a potential threat to health. The UK was one of only six states to vote against this.
In May 2008, 94% of MEPs in the European Parliament strengthened four previous calls for a moratorium by calling for a DU ban treaty in a wide-ranging resolution. Later that year 141 member states of the UN voted for a resolution asking for more studies into the effects of DU. The UK was one of only four states to vote against.
The UK has joined a small minority of nations resisting international efforts to examine Depleted Uranium more closely. It claims that international organisations such as WHO and UNEP have examined this issue and have not been able to “document long-term environmental or health effects attributable to use of these munitions”. The UK Government will know that none of the organisations it lists have conducted the necessary epidemiological studies on exposed civilian populations required to determine the health risks posed by DU. The UK is therefore relying on the contorted argument that we do not need further studies (despite the fact the required epidemiological studies haven’t been undertaken) because some international organisations have completed limited studies which, unsurprisingly, cannot conclude if DU does or does not pose a significant health risk.
Cluster bomblets - the UK ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions, banning their use in 2010
Ban on land-mines and cluster munitions
The UK heeded calls to sign the Ottawa (1997) and Cluster munitions (2008) treaties that banned land-mines and cluster munitions – however the US and Israel have yet to sign these treaties in line with their reputation as the least progressive states over weapon controls.
It is therefore uncharacteristic of the UK, which has demonstrated progressiveness on weapon controls, to join these two states in opposing further action on DU as it did in the UN votes in 2007 and 2008.
Autumn UN resolution
The UN general assembly is to be presented with a new resolution in the autumn which will likely call on states to release coordinates of where DU has been used, provide technical assistance to clear it up and stress the need to take a precautionary approach to DU use, at least until epidemiological studies have been concluded.
As the UK has already released coordinates of where it has fired DU and has part funded a study into the potential contamination of DU in Iraq, the UK has fulfilled most of the requirements of the new resolution. It should be easy, therefore, for the UK to support this non-binding resolution, and if it did so, it would be a highly symbolic move that would put pressure on other states to follow suit.
At the heart of this issue is the humanitarian concern for the thousands of innocent civilians who have been exposed to DU. During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the MoD stated it had a moral obligation to do what it could to minimize the health risks to civilians from DU exposure.
The first step towards fulfilling this obligation is full transparency over where the munitions have been used, in order to help facilitate the urgently needed studies into exposed civilian populations. It is therefore imperative that the UK government supports this autumn’s General Assembly resolution.
“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.
Fragments of depleted uranium penetrators are potentially hazardous, and a recent Royal Society study recommended that they should be removed, and areas of contamination around impact sites identified, and where necessary made safe.”
Professor Brian Spratt
The Royal Society, 2003.
Seven years later, Iraq is still waiting for Prof Spratt’s call to be heeded.