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Inside the UN Resolution on Depleted Uranium

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On October 31, a new United Nations General Assembly First Committee resolution on depleted uranium (DU) weapons passed overwhelmingly. There were 143 states in favor, four against, and 26 abstentions. The measure calls for UN member states to provide assistance to countries contaminated by the weapons. The resolution also notes the need for health and environmental research on depleted uranium weapons in conflict situations.

This fifth UN resolution on the subject was fiercely opposed by four depleted uranium-shooting countries — Britain, the United States, France and Israel — who cast the only votes in opposition. The 26 states that abstained reportedly sought to avoid souring lucrative trade relationships with the four major shooters.

Uranium-238 — so-called “depleted” uranium — is waste material left in huge quantities by the nuclear weapons complex. It’s used in large caliber armor-piercing munitions and in armor plate on tanks. Toxic, radioactive dust and debris is dispersed when DU shells burn through targets, and its metallic fumes and dust poison water, soil and the food chain. DU has been linked to deadly health effects like Gulf War Syndrome among U.S. and allied troops, and birth abnormalities among populations in bombed areas. DU waste has caused radioactive contamination of large parts of Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo and perhaps Afghanistan.

The measure explains that DU weapons are made of a “chemically and radiologically toxic heavy metal” [uranium-238], that after use “penetrator fragments, and jackets or casings can be found lying on the surface or buried at varying depth, leading to the potential contamination of air, soil, water and vegetation from depleted uranium residue.”

The main thrust of the latest UN resolution, “Encourages Member States in a position to do so to provide assistance to States affected by the use of arms and ammunition containing depleted uranium, in particular in identifying and managing contaminated sites and material.” The request is a veiled reference to the fact that investigators have been stymied in their study of uranium contamination in Iraq, because the Pentagon refuses to disclose maps of all the places it attacked with DU.

In the diplomatic confines of UN resolutions, individual countries are not named. Yet the world knows that up to 700 tons of DU munitions were blasted into Iraq and Kuwait by U.S. forces in 1991, and that U.S. warplanes fired another three tons into Bosnia in 1994 and 1995; ten tons into Kosovo in 1999, and approximately 170 tons into Iraq again in 2003.

The International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW.org), based in Manchester, England and representing over 160 civil society organizations worldwide, played a major part in seeing all five resolutions through the UN process and is working for a convention that would see the munitions outlawed. In October, ICBUW reported that the US military will again use DU weapons in Iraq in its assaults against ISIS “if it needs to”. The admission came in spite of Iraq’s summer 2014 recent call for a global ban on the weapons and assistance in clearing up the contamination left from bombardments in 1991 and 2003.

The new resolution relies heavily on the UN Environment Program (UNEP) which conducted radiation surveys of NATO bombing targets in the Balkans and Kosovo. It was a UNEP study in 2001 that forced the Pentagon to admit that its DU is spiked with plutonium. (Associated Press, Capital Times, Feb. 3, 2001: “But now the Pentagon says shells used in the 1999 Kosovo conflict were tainted with traces of plutonium, neptunium and americium — byproducts of nuclear reactors that are much more radioactive than depleted uranium.”)

The resolution’s significant fourth paragraph notes in part: “… 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.”

The “precautionary principle” holds that risky activities or substances should be shunned and discouraged unless they can be proved safe. Of course, instead of adopting precaution, the Pentagon denies that DU can be linked to health problems.

John LaForge works for Nukewatch and lives on the Plowshares Land Trust near Luck, Wisc.

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John LaForge is a Co-director of Nukewatch, a peace and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, and edits its newsletter.

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