Depleted Uranium Munitions:
The Use of Radiological Weapons as a Violation of Human Rights
Joint Intervention by
the International Peace Bureau and International Educational Development
Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights
Agenda Item 12:
Review of further developments
in fields with which the Sub-Commission has been concerned
Sub-item (d) (i) Adverse consequences of the
transfer of arms and illicit trafficking in arms on the enjoyment of human rights
(Scheduled to be discussed Monday, 23 August 1999)
Catherine Euler, Ph.D.
Campaign Against Depleted Uranium
One World Centre, 6 Mount St. Manchester M2 5NS England
Tel. 44-161-834-8301 Fax. 44-161-834-8187 Email: gmdcnd @ gn.apc.org
Karen Parker, J.D.
International Educational Development
8124 West Third Street, Suite 105 Los Angeles, California 90048 USA
Tel. 001-310-836-6316 Fax. 001-310-836-7347 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Campaign Against Depleted Uranium would also like to thank the
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Geneva,
for their invaluable support in producing this statement.
Thank you Mr. Chairman. We are pleased to present further information to the Sub-Commission on the use of depleted uranium weapons and thank the Sub-Commission for its work so far. We assure you that many NGOs around the world await further action on this issue.
Mr. Chairman, these radioactive weapons have already been used in Kuwait, Iraq, Kosovo and Serbia even though they are illegal under existing humanitarian law. There are four main tests which determine whether or not the use of weapons is illegal: (1) whether or not they stay within the territorial range of the conflict; (2) whether or not they damage the environment; (3) whether or not the effects of the weapons end when the conflict ends (or the temporal range of the weapons); and (4) whether or not they are inhumane, that is, continue to cause physical harm beyond the point used for military purposes. As the Sub-Commission is aware, Depleted Uranium Munitions fail all four tests.
1. Territorial Range
The radioactive aerosol produced by these weapons can travel at least 40 km. During the Gulf War some radioactive particles migrated to Saudi Arabia, a non-combatant country. During the recent Balkans War, scientists in Greece detected radiation levels 25% above normal whenever the wind blew from the direction of Kosovo. Bulgarian scientists reported levels eight times higher than usual within Bulgaria itself, also a non-combatant country.
2. DU Damages the Environment
Weapons tests using approximately 40,000-50,000 kg. of depleted uranium were conducted in the US state of New Mexico between 1955-1970. Los Alamos National Laboratory scientific reports on the ecological effects indicate the movement of depleted uranium through soils, water courses and the root systems of plants. In addition, depleted uranium was detected in the bones, hides and internal organs of mammals. A former US army expert on depleted uranium advises against planting foods in contaminated soils, and to avoid drinking contaminated water. One epidemiologist, a member of the UNEP Global 500, has suggested that people in affected areas only drink distilled water. The characteristic black dust near depleted uranium impact sites must be washed off food products; people involved in clean-up operations must wear respiratory protection, must cover their skin and hair, and must wash their hands frequently. What this means, Mr. Chairman, is that the Kosovar refugees are being sent back to a possibly radioactive environment. However, returnees do not have a map of the areas where depleted uranium was used, although such a map was published by the US Department of Defence for southern Iraq. The production of a similar map for Kosovo and Serbia would greatly assist efforts to evaluate the environmental impact of the war.
3. Temporal Range
Depleted Uranium has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, or the age of the planet itself. This means that it will go releasing ionising radiation into the environment, essentially forever. After the Gulf War DU remained suspended in the air above Kuwait City for two years. Soil particles can be re-suspended whenever the ground is disturbed, for example by wind, ploughing or reconstruction.
The International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) states that inside the body it takes 500 days for one chemical form of uranium to be excreted. However, there is evidence that the ceramic form of uranium dioxide, made during weapons explosions or fires, could stay in the body as long as 20 years. Depleted uranium was detected eight years after the end of the war in the urine of US, UK and Canadian Gulf War veterans and in that of Iraqi civilians.
4. Depleted Uranium Munitions Are Inhumane
Inhalation results in deposit of radioactive particles in the lungs and circulation of these particles via the bloodstream to various organs. DU and its decay products are alpha, beta and gamma emitters and can break the DNA or RNA in nearby cells. Because of the known mutagenic effect of depleted uranium, it is mathematically estimated that if there were a population of 100,000 people, each excreting an average of 3 micrograms of DU per day (the average for some Gulf War veterans), then 3,000-21,000 additional fatal cancers could be expected.
However, fatal cancers are only one expected health effect. Internal DU exposure can cause a weakened immune system response. It can damage the digestive tract, cause renal and neurological damage, and cause genetic malformations. One Iraqi doctor has reported a 7-10 per cent increase in birth abnormalities in southern Iraq. Health problems may continue for as long as the victim lives and some effects may not become apparent until several years after exposure. One of the shorter-lived decay products of uranium, thorium, is known to concentrate in breast tissue and may therefore be present in lactating mothers. Women’s breast and uterine tissue is especially vulnerable to ionising radiation and women experience 1.5 times more cancers than men, given equal exposures. Thus the use of depleted uranium weapons may also be seen as a particular violation of women’s human rights. Radiation damage to human DNA creates the nightmare of damage to the human genome, which is the map or seed for all future human generations, for as long as humanity exists.
Mr. Chairman, the use of these weapons represents a grave breach of humanitarian law. Perhaps 14-17 countries now have these weapons in their arsenals, and this trafficking is expected to increase. It is urgent that the Sub-Commission continues to play a major role in bringing worldwide attention to these violations.