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CADU's response to UK's justification of UN vote

At the October 2012 First Committee, the UK, France and US voted against draft resolution L16 on DU weapons. All three states maintain DU in their arsenal and together with Israel were the only states to oppose the text.
13 November 2012 - Aneaka Kellay

The text of the UK, US and France justification of their vote can be found at the bottom of this page.

In their justification the UK, France and the US stated that:

The  environmental  and  long-term  health  effects  of  the  use  of  depleted  uranium munitions have  been  so  far  thoroughly  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. 

None  of  these  inquiries  has  documented  long-term  environmental  or  health  effects attributable to use of these munitions.

However, investigation into the effect of DU munitions by the organisations noted above has not been as thorough as is suggested by the statement; primarily because none of the organisations cited has undertaken long-term studies.

Assessment of the environmental effects of DU has been primarily undertaken by UNEP. These assessments were snapshots based on a limited number of sites in the Balkans and are not necessarily indicative of situation in Iraq. The US’s failure to share information on the amount and location of DU fired in Iraq severely hampered UNEP’s ability to reach meaningful conclusions about levels of contamination and their potential impact. The UK’s own investigation into environmental contamination in Iraq only ever reached a preliminary stage due to security concerns[1].

Research by the WHO on the health impact of DU is outdated; their last report was updated in 2003[2]. Since then, research undertaken at the US military’s Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute (AFRRI) and other laboratories has used animal and in vitro studies to investigate the potential health implications of exposure to DU. Their data suggest, amongst other things, that DU exposure can damage DNA and has the potential to induce changes that can lead to cancer. It should be noted that the European Commission guidelines on the Precautionary Principle[3] recommend that risk managers not allow an acceptable daily intake for substances recognised as genotoxic[4] or carcinogenic.

Though research has been undertaken into the levels of exposure of military personnel to DU, no one has undertaken comprehensive long term research into civilian exposure or health outcomes. Reasons for this include the difficulty of undertaking detailed epidemiological survey work in fragile and insecure post conflict environments, a lack of interest from the states that use the weapons and the refusal by the US to reveal data on where it has fired the weapons.

UNEP has repeatedly called for a precautionary approach to DU, doing so after each of its studies in the Balkans. The UK Royal Society has suggested a range of precautionary measures in response to scientific uncertainties and the WHO has issued a number of precautionary guidelines for reducing the risk to civilians in areas in which DU has been used[5].

Serbian decontamination team sweeping soil for radioactive hotspots, Borovac, Serbia. 2007

Aside from scientific uncertainty and the calls for precaution expressed by international organisations, it must be remembered that DU is a radioactive waste product, whose use and disposal during peacetime is tightly regulated. According to the UK’s own strategy for radioactive waste discharges:

The [UK] government considers that the unnecessary introduction of radioactivity into the environment is undesirable, even at levels where the doses to both human and non-human species are low and, on the basis of current knowledge, are unlikely to cause harm.[6]

Similarly, and acknowledging that the scientific consensus agrees that any exposure carries with it some risk, international agencies such as the IAEA promotes the responsible use of radiation, which requires that:

The prime responsibility for safety must rest with the person or organization responsible for facilities and activities that give rise to radiation risks. An effective legal and governmental framework for safety, including an independent regulatory body, must be established and sustained. Facilities and activities that give rise to radiation risks must yield an overall benefit.[7]

In the case of DU use in conflict: the UK has stated that responsibility for post conflict clean up remains that of the affected state; states recovering from conflict may have no regulatory frameworks in place for radiation protection; and civilians living with DU contamination may struggle to recognise the societal benefits of its use.

Given the UK’s precautionary approach to domestic radioactive waste disposal, how can the refusal to take equal care and consideration toward innocent civilians during and after conflict be justified?

In regard to the specific issue of selective quotation raised by the UK in explanation of their vote, the UK, US and France note that:

It is further regrettable that the sponsors of this resolution have failed to quote the response from 2010 from the United Nations Environment Programme in its entirety and tried a partial quotation to strengthen their alleged claim.

It is paradoxical that whilst criticising the wording of the resolution for being selective, the UK, US and France have themselves been selective in reference to UNEP’s 2010 statement. The UK has highlighted the omission of the statement on levels of radioactivity but remains silent on UNEP’s call for precaution and post conflict clean up. The full quotation reads as follows:

The main scientific findings were consistent across the three assessments. Measurements taken at the depleted uranium sites showed that, even in areas with widespread depleted uranium contamination, the overall levels of radioactivity were low and within acceptable international standards, with no immediate dangers from either particle-based or waterborne toxicity. However, major scientific uncertainties persisted regarding the long-term environmental impacts of depleted uranium, particularly with respect to long-term groundwater contamination. Because of these scientific uncertainties, UNEP called for a precautionary approach to the use of depleted uranium, and recommended that action be taken to clean up and decontaminate the polluted sites. It also called for awareness-raising among local populations and future monitoring.[8]

Given the issues highlighted above, how can the UK continue to justify its voting position regarding draft resolution: “Effects of the use of armaments and ammunitions contain depleted uranium”?

An overwhelming majority of states supported the motion and it will now go to the full Plenary Session which meets in early December.  We have until then to change the UK vote. MP’s have tabled Early Day Motion 629 calling for the UK to vote in favour of the resolution in December at the UN General Assembly.

TAKE ACTION: contact your MP and ask them to sign EDM 629

[1] Ministry of Defence, Depleted Uranium and the Environment [Accessed 8th November 2012]

[2] WHO (2003) Depleted uranium: sources, exposure and health effects.

[3] Communication from the Commission on the precautionary principle /* COM/2000/0001 final */

[4] Damaging to DNA: pertaining to agents known to damage DNA, thereby causing mutations, which can result in cancer.

[5] Weir, D (2012) Precaution in Practice: challenging the acceptability of depleted uranium weapons, International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons.

[6]   UK strategy for radioactive waste discharges (2009).\UK%20energy%20supply\Energy%20mix\Nuclear\radioactvity\1_20090722135916_e_@@_dischargesstrategy.pdf&fletype=4&minwidth=true [Retrieved September 2012]

[7] Fundamental Safety Principles IAEA Safety Standards Series No.  SF-1: [Retrieved September 2012]

[8] UNEP report to UN General Assembly (2010) Effects of the use of armaments and ammunitions containing depleted uranium, Report of the Secretary-General, A/65/129/Add.1, 17 Sep 2010.