18 August 2012

Don't Let The Dust Settle

The dust is beginning to settle after the excitement of the Olympics. Concerned groups got their message across to the organisers and sponsors about the human rights of all those contributing to the success of the Games – especially of those in exploitative working conditions in sweat shops around the world making trinkets, trainers and sportswear for the thousands of athletes and millions of fans.

However, there is another human right that I would like to mention and today – August 19th : World Humanitarian Day - is as good day as any to talk about it. There is an element of ‘dust’ – both settling and air borne - in this story too. It is about Depleted Uranium (DU). The UKMinistry of Defence (MoD) describes DU as “a dense heavy metal, almost twice as dense as lead, which has the ability to self-sharpen on impact with armour making it highly suited to use asa kinetic energy anti-armour penetrator.” The MoD loves it goes on to say: “At present, no satisfactory alternative material exists to achieve the level of penetration needed todefeat the most modern battle tanks”. This is not necessarily true. The International Coalition to Ban UraniumWeapons (ICBUW) in their paper entitled “Overstating the case: an analysis of the utility of depleted uranium in kinetic energy penetrators” states that both the US and Germany have been carrying out research on modern tungsten alloys to replace depleted uranium use in anti-tank shells - and that the non-DU system used by Germany is more effective at penetration. Therefore “it is technically possible to design weapon systems that are equally as effective as DU, using alternative materials. All that is required is the political will for change within user states”.

What are the problems with DU weapons? ICBUW’s definition gives a hint: “Depleted uranium weapons are chemically toxic and radioactive weapons designed to pierce armour. Upon hitting their targets, DU penetrators release a fine, radioactive dust which can be inhaled and lodge in the lungs or travel to other parts of the body irradiating surrounding tissues with serious consequences that may not be revealed for years”. Studies have shown that DU can turn cells cancerous, and that it can cause chromosome damage, leukaemia, genomic instability, alpha-particle-induced cell transformation - and DU can also pass on damage to the next generation.

Watch this short film: “When the Dust Settles”

These weapons are known to have been used by the US and UK in the Balkans wars and the Iraq wars of 1991 and 2003. There soldiers, civilian populations and the environment were all exposed to toxic residues from these indiscriminate weapons. Because DU weapons cannot distinguish between combatants and civilians, between animals and the environment, they are illegal under International Law. Their radioactive dust contaminates everything it touches.

Much research has been done on the huge increase in foetal damage and cancers in Iraq. As I write, the World Health Organisation, in partnership with the Iraqi Ministry of Health, is carrying out a pilot assessment of congenital birth defects in six Iraqi governorates – including Fallujah. This is long overdue. Significant international concern has been generated over reports from medical staff in cities such as Fallujah and Baghdad of spiralling rates of congenital birth defects. Fallujah, has become particularly notorious and civil society organisations have been arguing that the increases in monstrous birth deformities are linked to environmental contamination from the US-led attacks on the cities in 2004.

What is the position of the UK Government on the use of Depleted Uranium? The Government wishes to keep using DU on the upgraded version of its anti-armour tank rounds –called “Charm3”. On 10thOctober 2011, the UK’s armed forces minister, Nick Harvey, assured Katy ClarkMP that a review had been carried out into the legality of Charm3 and that the use of this weapon was “permissible on humanitarian and environmental grounds under the Geneva Conventions” – to which the UK is a signatory, having ratified Article 36 – Additional Protocol 1 in 1998. But this turned out not to be the case because the MP asked to see the review and on 26 October Nick Harvey had to admit that no such review had ever taken place and he apologised for misleading parliament. On 31st October, Mr Harvey ordered a review. On 12 July 2012, he told Parliament that the review was complete and that “Charm3 is capable of being used lawfully by UK Armed Forces in an international armed conflict.” This leaves Britain isolated in its unswerving loyalty to its Charm3.

In 2008, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on DU use – which was supported by a massive 94% of the MEPs. The UN passed a similar resolution in 2010, which was supported by 148 states. Only four states voted against the resolution, of which the UK was one. The US also has a record of voting against resolutions calling for the banning or suspension of DU weapons.

However, this October 2012, the UN General Assembly will vote on a fourth resolution on DU weapons.

The ICBUW and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) have launched an online petition, which calls for the US to stop opposing resolutions against depleted uranium – and is urging supporters to sign-up on line. This October resolution won’t ban DU weapons outright but with good support it will get us closer to that goal. Just four states are arguing against the resolutions: the US, UK, France and Israel. Of these, the US is the largest user of DU weapons.

Please add your signature to this important petition:

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