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Depleted uranium – Action

Building the ban

On 22 March 2007 the Belgian Parliament voted unanimously to ban DU ammunition from 20 June 2009. The politicians may have voted in the law, but it was a group of tireless volunteers who made it happen. *Ria Verjauw* and *Willem Van den Panhuysen* of the Belgian Coalition to Stop Uranium Weapons tell the *NI* their story.

*Ria:* The inspiration came from a visit to Belgium by US anti-DU activist Damacio Lopez. The idea was to bring together people from different campaigning aspects to form an international coalition: activists, union people, scientists. In 2003 the group met for the first time in Berlaar. Nobody had any money, so we met at someone’s house. Very soon we decided to try for the maximum result, which is a total ban on DU. We were a very dedicated group, and everyone agreed that was the result to go for, even without money, just dedication and idealism.

*Willem:* At the end of the year we met again with a number of Belgian NGOs who worked on human rights, peace and the environment to form a Belgian coalition. We started looking through lists of NGOs and contacted them to see if they were interested in forming a network.

*Ria:* We realized that it is important to represent a large group of people if you want to be heard, especially during elections. You get taken more seriously.

*Willem:* Eventually we had about 70 organizations who committed to our mission. We had not contacted any individuals yet. From 2004 we started to send letters to the chairs of the Flemish political parties. Of the six parties, five responded positively.

*Ria:* We kept all the letters we received from the parties and confronted them with their promises when they were elected to form a government. It was important during election time to question parties and especially their chairs and get them to answer the questions. This is valuable and essential information for lobbying later on. We received information from an employee about to leave the Health Department which revealed that the Pentagon was lobbying Belgium to buy DU weapons.

*Willem:* I started thinking that if the Ministry of Defence says they haven’t bought any and won’t buy them in the future, there shouldn’t be much objection to banning them altogether. It would just be an affirmation of the existing situation. But when we asked the Minister of Defence whether a ban would be possible, he replied: ‘We can’t do it, because NATO and the UN aren’t encouraging it. So long as there is no international ban, it isn’t possible for a small country like ours to ban them.’

*Ria:* We had been told the military trade union had a lot of information, especially through soldiers who were involved in the Kosovo war and had become ill. So we contacted them and explained what our intentions were. Their co-operation was new for us. I find that if we have a conference and we have military speakers, there is always a positive response. It’s one of the reasons why the campaign was successful, because it brought together people from different ideologies, but who all wanted to fight for one cause.

_Meanwhile they painstakingly put together an information dossier which they circulated to politicians, urging them to propose a bill in Parliament or start a debate on the subject. The matter was examined by the Parliamentary Commission on National Defence, where experts testified to the dangers of DU on behalf of the campaign, while those working for the nuclear industry tried to play down the health risks. At another meeting of the Commission representatives of Belgium in NATO and the UN were present_.

*Willem:* The NATO person was totally against a ban, because there was no diplomatic precedent in Europe or the world. The UN person was a bit more positive. He said every country could decide independently, even though it had not happened before.

_Eventually Social Democrat member of Parliament Dirk Van der Maelen put forward a bill for a ban in January 2007. Then began a round of meetings to brief him and ensure that the information he put to Parliament on the dangers of DU would hold up_.

*Willem:* There was research done by the Pentagon, the British defence ministry and others, which took as a starting-point that the conclusion should be that the health risks are minimal. A lot of money was spent in scrappy research aiming to minimize the dangers, reassure the public and to mitigate long term healthcare costs. So it was important in our campaign to quote research for the Pentagon by Alexandra Miller, a radiobiologist in Maryland. She has done several studies with rats and human cells being exposed to DU, and from those it is clear that there are cancerous and genotoxic effects.

*Ria:* We also argued strongly for applying the precautionary principle, because there are arguments and there are counter arguments.

_Ria and Willem explain that in the final wording of the bill reference to ‘weapons’ had to be replaced by ‘inert ammunition’ because the former could have been interpreted to include nuclear weapons stored at the US military base in Kleine Brogel. Peace campaigners at heart, they realized an anti-DU law stood a chance, whereas an anti-nukes law didn’t_.

NI: Now the law is here. Belgium was also the first country to ban landmines. Critics said then that Belgium doesn’t produce landmines and doesn’t use them. If Belgium bans them, it doesn’t have any meaning. The same could be said about this ban.

*Willem:* They say it is symbolic, but it is not just a ban on using the weapons, but also on transport, stocking, buying or selling by the State. If a company wants to produce weapons, there will be a check that everything is according to the law.

*Ria:* And of course there is the port of Antwerp, through which a lot of weapons for Iraq are transported. So it is oversimplification to say that it is only symbolic. The first time a country votes for a ban like this is the most difficult and the most important. If a small country, which houses NATO and US nuclear weapons, succeeds, why shouldn’t other countries be able to ban it too? Belgium has given a very strong signal. Especially during the voting, there was a lot of pressure on the Prime Minister. He had a call from the US Government asking him not to let the ban go through. But the vote was unanimous, which really surprised us. The next two years will be crucial, as the law only comes into force in two years’ time.

Translated from the Flemish by *Bart Lienard*.

*6 November – International Day of Actions against Investments in Producers of Uranium Weapons*
For further details, see *www.motherearth.org/du/bank.php*

*11 November – International Day of Action against Depleted Uranium Weapons*

New Internationalist issue 406 magazine cover This article is from the November 2007 issue of New Internationalist.
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