From Socialist Voice, August 2009

Campaign to ban depleted uranium

On Thursday the 25th of June at a meeting in Buswell’s Hotel, Dublin, Afri called on the Irish Government to work for a worldwide ban on uranium weapons.
     There were two speakers: Doug Weir, from the Coalition Against Depleted Uranium, Manchester, and Denis Halliday, former assistant secretary-general of the United Nations. Dr Jawad al-Ali from the Cancer Treatment Centre in Basrah was invited but could not attend.

What is depleted uranium?

Doug Weir explained the difference between uranium, which occurs naturally in the earth, and depleted uranium, which is a waste product of the nuclear power industry. It is both chemically toxic and radioactive. It is irresistible to the military, as it is denser than lead and can pierce anything, including walls and tanks, and it is cheap and plentiful.

Where has it been used?

Depleted uranium was used for the first time in Iraq in 1991, then in the Balkans, and again in Iraq in 2003. Reports of increased rates of cancer and birth defects similar to those seen in Japan after the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki have not deterred its use. Both the US and British governments deny using depleted uranium in Afghanistan; however, leaked documents suggest that US forces in Afghanistan have DU weapons.
     Veterans who served in their armies also suffer from the effects of exposure to DU; but there is no register of sick veterans in the United States, where a “don’t look, don’t find” policy masks the reality of the toxicity of DU. Its use creates clouds of tiny metal particles that spread for miles around the strike, contaminating land and people instantly. It will remain in the environment for millions of years, and generations will be affected.

Legal status

Unlike chemical and biological weapons, there is no specific rule or treaty governing its use. However, the underlying principles of international humanitarian law, which seek to strike a balance between “military necessity” and “humanitarian considerations,” are certainly being contravened by its use. A weapon that causes birth defects in children is not “discriminate.” DU tank rounds that missed their targets remain in the soil, contaminating water and food for hundreds of years; this is not “proportionate.”
     It appears that the best way forward is to ban the manufacture and use of DU weapons, as was done with the Cluster Munitions Treaty. In 2007 Belgium became the first country to ban weapons that contain uranium. The use of depleted uranium has been condemned by four resolutions of the European Parliament, and it has been brought onto the agenda of the UN General Assembly. In Costa Rica, Japan, New Zealand and a number of Scandinavian countries draft legislation for a ban has already been submitted.
     Denis Halliday described the children with cancer he had known in Iraq, many of whom are now dead, and how the UN sanctions meant that vital drugs for treating cancer were not available to them. He referred to John Pilger’s documentary, which showed the effects of the US-UN war on Iraqis, especially children, who are more damaged by depleted uranium because of their type of skin tissue. Anti-tank rounds and bullets using depleted uranium are in fact “weapons of mass destruction,” because of their indiscriminate long-term effects.
     He described the Brussels Tribunal, a series of court cases that tried Bush, Blair and the Japanese and Australian prime ministers and found them guilty of war crimes. He referred to the Cluster Munitions Treaty, which was signed in Dublin last year after an international conference in Croke Park, and recommended that the Irish Government be encouraged to sign a similar treaty banning depleted uranium.
     In demonstrating Ireland’s commitment to ensuring that these weapons are “put beyond use,” all US military flights passing through Shannon and other airports should be searched by the Gardaí and the army, possibly with church or NGO leaders.

Banks and bombs

Both Denis Halliday and Doug Weir advised anybody concerned about depleted uranium to contact their local TDs and MEPs and ask them to lobby the Government to sign the treaty to ban depleted-uranium weapons. Also, because banks invest in the arms industry, people could contact their own banks and ask them which weapons manufacturers they have investments in. Alliant Techsystems, Day and Zimmermann and General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems are three American companies that produce DU weapons. Customers of Ulster Bank may be interested to learn that their money is being used to finance this industry: it is a subsidiary of Royal Bank of Scotland, which is “the world’s leading creditor to the arms sector.”

Interesting facts

Seventeen countries have DU weapons. These include Britain, the United States, France, Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Turkey, Bahrain, Oman, Egypt, Kuwait, Pakistan, Thailand, China, India, and Taiwan.
     BAE Systems produced DU shells for the British forces until 2003, when they ceased production on “environmental” grounds. Papers by the US Department of Defense on the toxicity of depleted uranium were excluded from a World Health Organisation report in 2001.

Further information

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