Campaign Against Depleted Uranium

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141 states support second uranium weapons resolution in UN General Assembly vote

The United Nations General Assembly has passed, by a huge majority, a resolution requesting its agencies to update their positions on the health and environmental effects of uranium weapons. The vote was passed with 141 states voting in favour, 34 abstaining and only the US, UK, Israel and France voting against.

The resolution, which passed the First Committee stage on October 31st by 127 votes to four, calls on the three relevant UN agencies – the World Health Organisation (WHO), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to update their positions on uranium weapons. Coming one day before the signing of the Cluster Munitions treaty, the overwhelming support for the text reflects increasing international concern over the long-term impact of uranium contamination in post conflict environments and military ranges.

This contrasts starkly with the official Foreign and Commonwealth Office position, recently passed to ICBUW in response to our recent letter writing campaign, which states that “there is only limited concern about DU among the international community”, and cites the reports of Germany and Finland to the Secretary-General this year as justification – despite the fact that both voted in favour of the current resolution.

In the 17 years since uranium weapons were first used on a large scale in the 1991 Gulf War, a huge volume of peer-reviewed research has highlighted previously unknown pathways through which exposure to uranium’s heavy metal toxicity and radioactivity may damage human health.

Throughout the world, parliamentarians have responded by supporting calls for a moratorium and ban, urging governments and the military to take a precautionary approach. However the WHO and IAEA have been slow to react to this wealth of new evidence and it is hoped that this resolution will go some way to resolving this situation.

In a welcome move, the text requests that all three agencies work closely with countries affected by the use of uranium weapons in compiling their research. Until now, most research by UN member states has focused on exposure in veterans and not on the civilian populations living in contaminated areas. Furthermore, recent investigations into US veteran studies have found them to be wholly incapable of producing useful data.

The text also repeats the request for states to submit reports and opinions on uranium weapons to the UN Secretary General in the process that was started by last year’s resolution. Thus far, 19 states have submitted reports to the Secretary General; many of them call for action on uranium weapons and back a precautionary approach. It also places the issue on the agenda of the General Assembly’s 65th Session; this will begin in September 2010.

The First Committee vote saw significant voting changes in comparison to the previous year’s resolution, with key EU and NATO members such as the Netherlands, Finland, Norway and Iceland changing position to support calls for further action on the issue. These changes were echoed at the General Assembly vote. Once again Japan, which has been under considerable pressure from campaigners, supported the resolution.

Of the permanent five Security Council members, the US, UK and France voted against. They were joined by Israel. Russia abstained and China refused to vote.

The list of states abstaining from the vote, while shorter than in 2007, still contains Belgium, the only state to have implemented a domestic ban on uranium weapons, a fact that continues to anger Belgian campaigners. It is suspected that the Belgian government is wary of becoming isolated on the issue internationally. Two Nordic states, Denmark and Sweden continue to blow cold, elsewhere in Europe Poland, the Czech Republic, Portugal and Spain are also dragging their feet, in spite of a call for a moratorium and ban by 94% of MEPs earlier this year. Many of the abstainers are recent EU/NATO accession states or ex-Soviet republics such as Kazakhstan.

Australia and Canada, both of whom have extensive uranium mining interests and close ties to US foreign policy also abstained. The resolution was submitted by Cuba and Indonesia on behalf of the League of Non-Aligned States.

The two year period before the General Assembly re-visit the issue is going to be a crucial time for our campaign. Internationally we need to ensure that the three UN agencies take all current research into account, and that they take the scientific uncertainties as reasons for caution, not complacency. In the UK, we will continue to challenge the government politically and scientifically, and to highlight their international isolation on this issue. While their record suggests they are likely to one of the last countries to acknowledge the dangers of DU, their position will be particularly vulnerable to any changes in the position of the three UN agencies, as they have so often been used as cover in the past.

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Page last updated: 4 December, 2008