Thunderbolt II observation / attack aircraft. The Gatling gun at the bottom of the aircraft body fires DU shells capable of tearing a tank apart. Photo: Kevin / Wikimedia Commons.
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European Parliament demands action on DU munitions
11th April 2014
With a UN resolution on DU munitions due this autumn, the European Parliament is demanding a strong EU position supporting their abolition, or at least strict controls on these fearsome weapons whose toxic residues persist for decades after use.
Particular emphasis should be placed on the protection of children. Small children could receive greater exposure to depleted uranium when playing in or near depleted uranium impact sites.
Depleted uranium - DU for short - is the by-product of the uranium enrichment process which makes 'enriched uranium' high in the fissionable uranium isotope U-235 for nuclear fuel or bombs.
DU is what's left behind, and almost entirely comprises U-238. It's very dense - almost twice as dense as lead - making DU missiles, shells and bullets devastating weapons for penetrating armour, soil, buildings and concrete bunkers.
It is also 'pyrophoric' - meaning that it spontaneously ignites on impact. So having penetrated a tank, for example, a DU shell immediately burns out the inside of the tank and fries its occupants.
Huge, long term environment and health impacts
But DU carries very long term health and environmental costs. DU munitions generate an aerosol of micron and sub-micron particles that can spread between tens and hundreds of metres from the target.
Recent studies have shown that these particles can persist in the environment effectively unchanged for at least 30 years. DU ammunition is fired by tanks, armoured fighting vehicles and aircraft and its use can generate huge quantities of contaminated scrap and soils.
Although only very mildly radioactive, with its half life of about 4.6 billion years, it is observed to be highly damaging to health when ingested or inhaled.
Physicist Chris Busby has proposed that this is because its very high atomic number makes it an ideal 'interceptor' for background gamma radiation, whose energy is then re-emitted, via the photoelectric effect, as energetic electrons similar to beta radiation.
Comprehensive studies on civilian health are lacking, but in their absence it is clear that remedial measures should be undertaken to reduce exposure to DU residues. Yet unlike explosive remnants of war, there is no legal obligation on DU users to support or undertake this work.
Iraq - the secret scandal of DU contamination
Iraq is a case in point. The bill for cleaning up the 300-350 sites in Iraq that are known to be contaminated with depleted uranium (DU) munitions has been estimated at between $30 - $45m. Then there are the sites that the Iraqi Ministry for the Environment doesn't know about.
It doesn't know about these sites because there is currently no obligation on the users of the weapons to release targeting data to affected states after conflict. Nor is there currently an obligation to decontaminate sites or provide risk education or health and exposure monitoring to communities.
The United States and United Kingdom have disclosed that they used around 400 tonnes of DU munitions in Iraq in 1991 and 2003. The United Nations Environment Programme believes that the total may be nearer 1,000 tonnes.
Persistent and consistent reports from medical staff across Iraq have associated this legacy from the conflict with increased rates of certain cancers and congenital birth defects.
The extent to which DU may be associated with these health problems is still unclear as the conditions since 2003 have not made it easy to study civilian exposure and health outcomes. That little data is available on where the munitions were used has also helped confound research.
WHO: Contaminated sites must be managed
The need for post-conflict management of DU contaminated sites if recognised by the UK Royal Society and the World Health Organisation, which states:
"If high concentrations of depleted uranium dust or metal fragments are present, then areas may need to be cordoned off until removal can be accomplished ... particular emphasis should be placed on the protection of children. Small children could receive greater exposure to depleted uranium when playing in or near depleted uranium impact sites."
It can be argued that the legacy of the use of DU in Iraq has significant implications for the acceptability of the weapons.
From targeting transparency to post-conflict management capacity, to the use of DU against non-armoured targets and in populated areas, Iraq's experience clearly demonstrates many of the problems associated with the use of this radioactive and toxic heavy metal in conventional weapons.
European Parliament: DU weapons 'intrinsically unacceptable'
The European Parliament recognised the intrinsic unacceptability of DU in 2001 after its in the former Yugoslavia. Since then, resolution after resolution has called for a moratorium on its use - most notably in 2008 where a wide-ranging text was supported by 94% of MEPs.
In spite of the Parliament's clear decade-long position, voting by EU member states on UN General Assembly resolutions remains split. DU users the UK and France side with the US and Israel, who together are the only four states to oppose the resolutions.
A bloc of more DU-progressive states led by Germany and Italy vote in favour, while a third bloc, primarily comprising Eastern European and Baltic states but including Denmark, Sweden, Spain and Portugal abstain.
Globally, 155 states supported the most recent UN text in 2012 and the split position within the EU is something of a regional anomaly in the face of an emerging global consensus.
Preparing for a UN Resolution, October 2014
A fifth United Nations Resolution on DU is approaching this October in the General Assembly. Conscious of the need to resolve the DU issue, the Parliament is urging EU member states to adopt a common position in favour of a ban, and to help provide clearance and assistance for affected communities.
The Resolution on Iraq that includes the call was pursued by the Parliament's Committee on Relations with Iraq.
Speaking at a recent hearing of the Committee, which considered field research undertaken in Iraq by the Dutch peace organisation PAX, the committee's chair, British MEP Struan Stevenson of the conservative ECR group said there was a
"demonstrable case for a strong and robust resolution calling on member states like the United Kingdom and France to stop using DU."
Catherine Ashton - are you listening?
Led by Stevenson, a group of MEPs and from across both Europe and the political spectrum, have also submitted questions to the EU's foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton to ask what the European Commission has been doing to encourage the development of a common position within the EU.
They also call on the EU to demonstrate leadership on the DU issue. The questions remained unanswered at the time of writing.
The call in the Resolution and the questions to Baroness Ashton have now been lent further weight by a recommendation to Europe's Council of Ministers, calling on EU member states to "support UN General Assembly resolutions on depleted uranium weapons".
It also calls on EU members "to develop an EU Common Position that better reflects Parliament's repeated calls for a precautionary global moratorium and the developing global consensus on the potential civilian health risks, complex post-conflict management burden and financial costs associated with their use."
Consistent support from Green and other MEPs
The Parliament's Green political groups have consistently supported action on DU weapons and have repeatedly ensured the topic's inclusion in resolutions and hearings.
Reflecting on the need for a common EU position on DU, Tarja Cronberg MEP, spokesperson of the Greens / EFA group (the fourth largest in the Parliament) for security, defence and disarmament said:
"We want several things, first, that the issue is recognised institutionally as a problem we have to address. Secondly, that some day soon the High Representative for EU Foreign Affairs and Security Policy will initiate a process leading to an EU common position banning the use, the production and investments in DU ammunition by EU member states.
"This should also mandate the EU to work towards a global ban on DU weapons in a similar way as in the context of the Arms Trade Treaty or the 2010 NPT Review Conference.
"In both cases, an EU common position made it possible that the EU spoke with one voice and was able to have a positive impact."
The message is clear
As was the case with the landslide 2008 UN resolution, that current initiatives have garnered support from across the political spectrum appears to show that DU's unacceptability remains as persistent as its legacy in Iraq.
The Parliament's message to EU governments is clear - but whether it will be acted on will only become apparent this October when the UN General Assembly meets.
Additional reporting by Doug Weir, Coordinator of the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons, a global civil society initiative that seeks a ban on the use of uranium in conventional weapons and for monitoring, health care, compensation and environmental remediation for communities affected by their use.
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