The question of the potential health risks from depleted uranium is not a matter of belief, and no credible body suggests that that exposure is not a cause for concern. As the Chair of the Royal Society’s Working Group on Depleted Uranium said in 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.
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.”
Indeed, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) technical reportCapacity-building for the Assessment of Depleted Uranium in Iraq, funded by the UK Government, concluded that: “local people were being exposed to DU and other heavy metals in uncontrolled scrap yards and scrap metal processing areas, with potential consequences for their health.”
In light of these statements, from a representative of the UK’s foremost scientific body in the first case, and in research that they themselves have sponsored in the second, it is somewhat odd for the Government to speak of ignoring evidence.
While there is no scientific consensus on the scale of the risk from the use of uranium weapons, a major impediment to clarifying the situation is that no large-scale studies have been done to assess the health effects on civilians in contaminated areas. As the recent ICBUW report A Question of Responsibilitymade clear, without detailed information about the locations where uranium weapons have been used, as requested in the resolution, such studies will be unable to proceed.
As with its vote on the 2008 resolution, the Government is suggesting that the lack of studies is a valid reason to oppose further research.
Our view remains that depleted uranium can be used within weapons; it is not prohibited under current or likely future international agreements. UK armed forces use depleted uranium munitions in accordance with international humanitarian law (IHL). It would be quite wrong to deny our serving personnel a legitimate capability that provides the best possible protection for them during armed conflicts.
You may be aware, prior to entering service depleted uranium munitions, as with all weapons and munitions, were subject to a legal weapons review in accordance with Article 36 of Amended Protocol 1 of the Geneva Convention. The legal review considers each weapon and munition in the context of the following legal principles:
• whether it is prohibited, or whether its use is restricted, by any specific treaty provision or other applicable rule of international law;
• whether it is of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering;
• whether it is capable of being used discriminately (i.e. distinguishing between legitimate military targets and civilians/civilian objects);
• whether it may be expected to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment; and
• whether it is likely to be affected by current and possible future trends in the development of IHL
UK forces only use weapons in compliance with IHL. The application of military force is governed further by the four IHL principles of: distinction, proportionality, military necessity and humanity.
While there is no specific ban on the use of uranium in conventional weapons, international humanitarian law (IHL) places restrictions on the use of all weapons. This is not simply a matter of holding a legal review and clearing a weapon for use; the way that weapons are used in battle is also subject to certain restrictions. Article 58 of Additional Protocol 1 to the Geneva Conventions, for example, requires that parties take all feasible steps to protect the civilian population from dangers resulting from military operations; according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, one of the laws of customary IHL is that a lack of scientific certainty does not absolve a party from taking precautions to minimise harm to the environment.
These obligations, and others, mean that there are serious doubts over the legality of the use of uranium weapons. In certain circumstances, such as the use in urban areas, the legality of their use is even further in doubt.
Without transparency about where uranium weapons have been used, it is not possible to verify claims that uranium weapons have only been used in strict accordance with IHL. We call upon the Government to make its legal review public, and to support calls for transparency. There are troubling indications that US forces used uranium weapons in built-up areas, and against targets for which they were not legally reviewed – such as buildings.
The lack of transparency about targeting benefits no-one, and will do nothing to dispel ongoing concerns about the use of uranium weapons. For the Government to espouse such laudable legal principles, but to oppose scrutiny of their claims, seems perverse.
On the UN draft resolution; this continues to call for action by the Secretary-General and UN member states based on the alleged harmful effects of the use of depleted uranium munitions on health and the environment. It mentions the relevant studies by international organisations on the subject, but does not give them long term credit, presupposing “the magnitude of the potential long term effects on human beings and the environment”.
The section which is being quoted reads:
“Considering that studies conducted so far by relevant international organizations have not provided a detailed enough account of the magnitude of the potential long-term effects on human beings and the environment of the use of armaments and ammunitions containing depleted uranium.”
In other words, prior studies have not shown how large the effects of uranium weapons are.
It is not clear whether the Government is being intentionally disingenuous here, or whether it has simply failed to understand the wording of the resolution.
As you know, the environmental and long-term health effects of the use of depleted uranium munitions have been investigated by the World Health Organization, the United Nations Environmental Program, the International Atomic Energy Agency, NATO, the Centres for Disease Control, the European Commission, and others including the Royal Society as mentioned specifically in your email. None of these inquiries has documented long-term environmental or health effects attributable to use of these munitions. It is regrettable that the conclusions of these studies are ignored.
In the case of environmental effects, this statement is simply incorrect – the work of UNEP in the Balkans documents the presence of depleted uranium in the environment years after the end of conflict, and there is no question that the source is from US planes. In fact, these findings were confirmed in a paper published by the MoD themselves in 2001, which found DU contamination from US planes in the British sector of Kosovo. This contamination is expected to persist for decades, and UNEP’s recommendations state that drinking water near contaminated sites should be regularly tested as a precaution. It is hard to see how this does not amount to a long-term environmental effect.
With regard to health effects, the studies have not been ignored. The resolution states quite clearly that these studies have failed to provide “a detailed enough account of the magnitude of the potential long-term effects.” Without meaningful research on civilians in contaminated areas, it remains impossible to document whether the use of uranium weapons has had any harmful effects or not.
The resolution seeks to resolve the situation by calling for transparency about the use of uranium weapons. What is regrettable is that the Government appears to object to the sharing of important information, and to oppose scientific research.
OP6 of the resolution requests states that have used depleted uranium in armed conflict to provide information about its use. We have serious doubts on the relevance of such a request, according to IHL. We consider that it is up to each state to provide data at such a time and in such a manner as it deems appropriate.
This statement intentionally conflates an explicit legal obligation under IHL with the request for transparency in the resolution. Because IHL does not explicitly address the question of sharing targeting data, it is without question that a request, such as the one found in the resolution, can be made.
As documented in ICBUW’s report, A Question of Responsibility, the lack of information about the where uranium weapons have been used is a serious impediment to environmental monitoring and decontamination. Because of these consequences it is arguable that sharing such information is part of states’ obligations under IHL to minimise the effects of military action on civilians and the environment. In some recent treaties (such as the Mine Ban Treaty and the Convention on Cluster Munitions – to which the UK is a signatory) it is an explicit requirement that state parties must share information about the use of certain weapons in order to reduce the potential harm to civilians.
Notwithstanding the merits of this argument, the Government is entitled to its opinion that there is no specific obligation to share this information, but that has no bearing on the point in hand. The resolution requests that states share information about the use of uranium weapons because of their potential harm to human health and the environment. If there is no existing obligation, that cannot prevent such a request from being made, or render it irrelevant.
By trying to divert the discussion onto specific obligations, the Government is indulging in obfuscation. The question is not whether there is an obligation under IHL to share this information, but whether the request in the resolution is reasonable or not, and whether the UK should endorse it.
What is clear is that when the resolution was voted upon at the UN First Committee, 136 states thought that this request was reasonable and supported the resolution, and the UK was one of only four states to vote against. The Uranium Weapons Network simply asks that the UK joins with the vast majority of states in supporting this eminently reasonable request, and ceases to stand in the way of meaningful research on this important issue.
The UK provided comprehensive details to inform necessary studies, not to presuppose depleted uranium was harmful. The situation with anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions is different; we have acknowledged, and are now rightly obliged to clearance operations through international treaty, on the grounds these munitions and their legacies are indiscriminate and harmful from both humanitarian and developmental perspectives.
The project that the UK funded was to build capacity in Iraq, in order to enable researchers to carry out “a comprehensive field assessment…to investigate the use of DU and its residual impacts.” The study itself was not that assessment, it merely sought to enable others to carry it out, and gave oversight to assessment in just four areas of southern Iraq.
To enable this work to go ahead, the UK provided information about where 1.9 tonnes of depleted uranium had been fired by UK forces in 2003. However, a further 404 tonnes have been fired by UK and US forces in 1991 and 2003, and no information has been provided about the locations where this material has been fired.
As documented in A Question of Responsibility, and in the work of UNEP on this issue, unless this information is provided, the necessary comprehensive field assessment in Iraq will be impossible. It is absurd to claim that the preparatory project which trained Iraqi researchers for this assessment was ‘necessary’, whilst preventing the main body of work from going forward by stopping it being supplied with the information required.
The work that the UK Government funded specifically cited the reports of health impacts in southern Iraq as one of the reasons for the geographical scope of the project. As mentioned above, it also concluded that local people were being exposed to DU and other heavy metals with potential health consequences.
There is no question of the results of any studies being pre-empted; transparency about the use of uranium weapons is a necessary pre-requisite to investigating these reports. The effect of the Government’s opposition to the UN resolution for greater transparency is that it is standing in the way of the main body of assessment and remediation work, and preventing health studies to determine the impacts of uranium weapons contamination from going ahead.
The UK is politically isolated on this issue, both around the world and amongst our NATO and EU allies. The justifications given for its position are unpersuasive, and out of kilter with the facts. It is time that the Government ceased opposing the proportionate and reasonable request for transparency, and voted for the resolution.