New Internationalist

Depleted uranium – Action

Issue 406

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.

The International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons

With more than 80 member organizations worldwide, ICBUW campaigns for an explicit international treaty that would not only ban uranium weapons but also cover the decontamination of battlefields and rules on compensation for victims. In propagating a Draft Convention for a ban, ICBUW is attempting to emulate the successful example of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. ICBUW’s member organizations lobby at the national level, while ICBUW itself works with supranational bodies such as the European Parliament and the United Nations.

The Coalition has also compiled a reliable archive of information on DU and sponsors independent research into its effects. The Basra Epidemiological Study will attempt to quantify for the first time the scale of the cancer epidemic around Basra, southern Iraq, by the examination of pre- and post-1991 cancer records. The Iraqi Children’s Tooth Project aims to assess the spread of DU across Iraq through analyzing children’s milk teeth for uranium isotopes. – for a list of member organizations in various countries.

Soldiers say NO!

The hazardous nature of DU munitions has made many soldiers reluctant to be around them. EUROMIL, the European Organization of Military Associations, has gone one step further in calling for a complete ban. EUROMIL consists of 34 military associations from 22 countries representing nearly 500,000 individuals.

‘EUROMIL recognizes that there may be long-term implications for the health of soldiers performing duties in areas where DU weapons were used. To counteract such effects, governments should ensure that measures are put in place that guarantee the safety and protection of troops during their missions in areas contaminated as a result of the use of DU… EUROMIL also recognizes that there may be long-term implications for the health of the population in the area where DU weapons were used… Therefore EUROMIL strongly urges governments to ban the use of DU weapons and to use their influence to appeal to their worldwide partners to abandon the use of these weapons.’

DU and international law

Luisa Morgantini, Vice-President of the European Parliament, which has thrice called for a moratorium on DU weapons. A member of the Italian Communist Refoundation Party, in March this year she urged the Italian Government to ‘follow the Belgian example and ban ammunitions and armour that contain depleted uranium’.

Although no treaty explicitly banning DU weapons is yet in force, using DU runs counter to the basic rules and principles enshrined in International Humanitarian Law.
These include:

  • The general principle on the protection of civilian populations from the effects of hostilities.
  • The principle that the right of the parties to an armed conflict to choose their methods or means of warfare is not unlimited.
  • The principle that the employment in armed conflicts of weapons, projectiles, and material and methods of warfare of a nature likely to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering is forbidden.
  • The prohibition of the use of poisonous weapons according to the Hague Regulations and the rules of the Poison Gas Protocol.
  • The prohibition of widespread damage to the natural environment and unjustified destruction according to the Hague Regulations and the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions.

Additionally two resolutions of the Sub-Commission to the UN Commission on Human Rights (1996/16 and 1997/36) state that the use of uranium ammunition is not in conformity with existing International and Human Rights Law.†

In 2006, the European Parliament strengthened its previous three calls for a moratorium on DU weapons by calling for a total ban.

† UNHCHR resolutions: 1996; 1997

6 November – International Day of Actions against Investments in Producers of Uranium Weapons
For further details, see

11 November – International Day of Action against Depleted Uranium Weapons

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This article was originally published in issue 406

New Internationalist Magazine issue 406
Issue 406

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