ICBUW Geneva UN Workshop Report
On April 2nd the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW) and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) organised an afternoon workshop in the Palais des Nations, Geneva. The workshop had three main aims:
1. To give state delegations a broad overview of the latest health, scientific, environmental, military and legal perspectives on the issue of uranium weapons.
2. To encourage states to submit reports on the health and environmental impact of uranium weapons to the UN Secretary General, in line with last December’s GA resolution entitled: 'Effects of the use of armaments and ammunitions containing depleted uranium’ (A/C.1/62/L.18/Rev.1).
3. To build support for ICBUW’s eventual goal of a legal instrument banning the use of uranium in all conventional weapon systems.
The afternoon began with an introduction from Mrs Rae Street, ICBUW Steering Committee member and Coordinator of the Campaign Against Depleted Uranium. Mrs Street gave a brief overview of the issue and a history of ICBUW’s activities.
Independent advisor on radiation in the environment Dr Ian Fairlie began the first session with an introduction to the current state of knowledge on internal radioactive emitters i.e. radioactive particles that are ingested or inhaled. He explained that the differences between depleted uranium (DU) and uranium (U) are negligible and that its radiological toxicity is as great as its chemical toxicity. He also highlighted concerns over additive and multiplier effects between the two forms of toxicity.
He agreed that the lack of post-conflict epidemiology makes establishing the risks from DU challenging but noted that the more we find out about radiobiology the more stringent the safe exposure levels become. He made it clear that newly discovered effects of radiation are not being taken into account by policy makers. He explained that if DU were a cosmetic or foodstuff, the tests done thus far would be sufficient to have it banned.
He ended with a call for states to adopt the Precautionary Principle when dealing with the uncertainties involved in estimating risk from internal radioactive emitters such as DU.
Dr Katsumi Furitsu (Campaign Against Radiation Exposure, Japan) went into more detail about the specific health effects of DU weapons. Dr Furitsu showed that DU dust has no historical analogue and is of a particle size that allows it to be extremely mobile within the body and the environment. She showed that DU is genotoxic, carcinogenic, mutagenic, teratogenic and can cause immunological and neurological disorders. Dr Furitsu then urged states to submit reports to the Secretary General in line with last December’s resolution and suggested recommendations be made on restricting the use of these weapons in accordance with the Precautionary Principle.
Throughout her presentation she warned that previous reports from a number of governmental bodies and international organisations, including WHO, had not yet fully reflected and referenced the most up-to-date scientific studies.
Gretel Munroe (Grassroots Action for Peace, US) discussed the behaviour of DU in the environment, paying particular attention to UNEP’s work in the Balkans. She highlighted problems with their methodology, which had seen them analysing areas years after the conflict had ended; other areas were contaminated by Unexploded Ordnance, meaning that UNEP were unable to gain access to important sites. In many cases wreckage and other contaminated detritus had been removed by the time UNEP arrived, making it difficult to ascertain the precise location of strikes. In all three major surveys a tiny percentage of strike sites were visited. It was noted that both the Serbian and Montenegrin governments had spent considerable sums removing contaminated topsoil from DU strike sites.
US researcher Dan Fahey (Veterans for Common Sense) has been studying the DU issue for more than a decade. He has worked closely with US veterans’ groups and scrutinised the US veteran testing regime. During a detailed analysis of the figures, he showed that evidence of cancers has been ignored by researchers and that the US government is using an inappropriate test for determining DU exposure, which can potentially lead to false negative test results. Furthermore, in all their studies a statistically tiny sample size is being given undue prominence.
He concluded that US government’s statements about DU are politically motivated and should not be considered truthful or scientific.
President of EUROMIL Emmanuel Jacob explained that EUROMIL’s 500,000 trade union members wish to see a ban on the use of uranium weapons. They are also seeking additional briefings and training for personnel on the dangers of DU contamination and the rapid release of targeting data showing where DU weapons have been used. They also hope to see more emphasis on the testing of veterans before, during and after deployment.
Avril McDonald (Asser Institute) noted that there is cause for concern over the use of uranium weapons and supported calls for a ban. However she argued that existing International Humanitarian Law seems ill prepared to deal with what is a conventional weapon with unconventional effects. In view of the fact that the full picture of DU’s effects has yet to emerge, she argued for a precautionary approach that will minimise any possible ill effects, one facet of which is a moratorium until such time as it can be proved to be safe.
Prof. Manfred Mohr (German Red Cross) argued that the banning of DU weapons is the ‘logical next step’ after cluster munitions and called for a moratorium on their use and production. He highlighted strategies such as DU Weapon Free Zones and called for more activity in regional fora such as the EU. Finally he noted the importance of domestic activity, using Belgium’s domestic ban as an example.
Prof. Nobuo Kazashi (No DU Hiroshima Group, Japan) followed up the presentations by calling for a moratorium and noted that the campaign against uranium weapons is building considerable momentum. He then urged states to submit reports to the Secretary General by mid-May.
Two main topics stood out during the discussions. The first issue was UN peacekeepers. Many states have personnel on active duty in areas where DU munitions have been used and there was understandable concern for their safety. Questions were asked about the efficacy of urine testing and screening for troops. ICBUW explained that there is considerable difficulty in ascertaining exposure because once inside the body, the fine particles of uranium dissolve extremely slowly, so it is possible for tests to miss the tell-tale isotopic signature of DU.
Given the ongoing Oslo process it was understandable that legal matters were a popular area for discussion, though no clear conclusion was reached among the delegates or panel as to the best forum for dealing with DU weapons.
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Page last updated: September 29, 2008