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DU: Some NATO Countries Reject Moratorium

11 January, 2001

UN Wire

Most NATO countries rejected requests yesterday from several of their allies to institute a moratorium on use of depleted uranium munitions by the alliance, despite a growing controversy surrounding the possible link between the weapons and cases of cancer in peacekeepers once deployed in the Balkans.

At a stormy meeting yesterday in Brussels, some NATO ambassadors were critical of the United States, the chief proponent of the munitions, but most did not choose to support demands from Italy, Germany, Norway and Greece to stop using the munitions until it has been clarified whether the weapons pose a health risk (Marlise Simons, New York Times, 11 Jan).

France, the United Kingdom and the United States all firmly rejected removing the munitions from alliance arsenals, despite pleas from Italy, Germany, Greece and Norway. US officials said a moratorium would be perceived as an admission of guilt that could later be exploited to pin allegations of war crimes on allied leaders (William Drozdiak, Washington Post, 11 Jan).

Italy has been in the forefront of pushing for a ban on depleted uranium weapons, which are often used as anti-tank munitions. The Defense Ministry announced yesterday that a seventh Balkans veteran has died from leukemia, bringing the known number of leukemia deaths of European peacekeepers who formerly served in the Balkans to 15 (Simons, New York Times).

Numerous studies on the effects of depleted uranium weapons have not revealed any connection between the substance and cancer, but concerns among European nations have escalated recently as Italy began investigating the illnesses of 30 soldiers (Jeffrey Ulbrich, Associated Press/Boston Globe, 11 Jan).

NATO Head Tries To Reassure Public

NATO also officially launched a massive damage limitation campaign yesterday, the London Guardian reports. During a news conference, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson told reporters that "no link of any kind" has been discovered between the use of depleted uranium shells and leukemia or other illnesses. "I do not believe the public should have been as excited as it has been," Robertson said. "We are confident that there is little risk from DU munitions, but we refuse to be complacent." Robertson added that banning the munitions would be a mistake. "We must base our analysis on facts and not be swayed by perceptions," he said. "I would not agree to the use of the munitions if I believed there was a hazard" (Andrew Osborn, London Guardian, 11 Jan).

Robertson said that NATO offers its full cooperation for all investigations into the health consequences of the weapons for Western peacekeepers who were stationed in Kosovo. Robertson said the alliance had "nothing to hide and everything to share" in order to reassure troops and civilians that there are no serious health hazards from depleted uranium munitions.

"European governments will think twice about sending troops on NATO military missions next time if they know the Americans and the British will be using depleted uranium weapons," said Rafael Estrella, a Spanish legislator serving as president of the NATO's parliamentary assembly. "This is a very important political matter that has to be cleared up soon" (Drozdiak, Washington Post).

Robertson said the current plan for full NATO cooperation includes consultation with countries that contribute peacekeepers to Bosnia and Kosovo and the creation of a clearinghouse of information to be shared regarding depleted uranium (Ulbrich, AP/Boston Globe).

Pekka Haavisto, chair of the UN DU Assessment Team in the former Yugoslavia and former Finnish environment minister, said that the situation lends itself to learning a great deal more about battlefield conditions and likelihood of exposure, including whether similar situations in Iraq and the Balkans could be linked.

"This is the moment to find out the scientific truth," Haavisto said. "I'm not so happy we have (Kosovo) as a test laboratory, (but) the valuable thing is (that) for the first time we are doing field work on this issue" (Scott Peterson, Christian Science Monitor, 11 Jan).

British Army Report Warned Of Dangers Despite Robertson's assurances that nothing has been found to substantiate the health hazards of depleted uranium weapons, a document leaked to the press reveals that a 1997 British Defense Ministry report warned of a risk of cancer from depleted uranium. The report says that soldiers conducting salvage work inside vehicles that had been damaged by such munitions faced up to eight times the acceptable level of exposure and could be at risk for developing lung, lymph and brain cancers.

The Ministry of Defense confirmed the existence of the report today, but said it was written by a "trainee" and never officially endorsed by the senior staff. "Certain elements are scientifically incorrect or misleading," Defense Ministry spokesperson Paul Sykes said (, 11 Jan).

British Armed Forces Minister John Spellar Tuesday told Parliament that when handled according to regulations, depleted uranium munitions used both in the Persian Gulf and the Balkans posed no risk to British troops. In light of the 1997 report's revelation, Shaun Rusling, chair of the National Gulf Veterans and Families Association said, "I think this shows that Mr. Spellar has, perhaps unknowingly, misled the House of Commons," adding that many Gulf War veterans that he knows are suffering from kidney damage (Michael Smith, London Telegraph, 11 Jan).

Local Populations Seem Unaware Of Risks

Meanwhile, BBC Online reports that while UN peacekeeping troops in Kosovo, outfitted in masks and white protective suits, are testing for radiation, the local populations seem unaware of the potential risks, noting that for the last 18 months Albanian children have been playing on shelled sites that are still littered with debris from tanks and armored personnel carriers (Rowland/Wood, BBC Online, 10 Jan).

BBC Online also reports that little information is available in Bosnia about the possible effects from these munitions, and what little there is often is not shared between the two halves of the country -- the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Bosnian Serb republic, Republika Srpska.

Bosnia's State Council of Ministers is setting up a working group to coordinate information about the possible health hazards associated with the ammunition and plans to ask NATO for a map of locations where the ammunition was used (Alix Kroeger, BBC Online, 10 Jan).

An army officer said yesterday that the Yugoslav army has measured radioactivity levels up to 1,100 times the normal levels in five areas hit by depleted uranium shells during NATO air strikes in 1999. Colonel Milenko Rilak said the army estimated that between 1 and 1.5 tons of depleted uranium had been fired at Yugoslav targets, excluding Kosovo, and approximately 5.5 acres of land has been contaminated (Reuters/Central Europe Online, 11 Jan).

Iraq Seeks Depleted Uranium Inquiry

Meanwhile, Iraq has called on the United Nations and other international bodies to investigate the effects of depleted uranium weapons used during the 1991 Gulf War. An Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesperson said the reports of cancer among NATO troops who served in the Balkans substantiates Iraq's claims about the "disastrous consequences" of depleted uranium on people and the environment. The spokesperson was quoted by the official Iraqi news agency as saying the use of such weapons in Iraq caused an abnormal rise in cases of leukemia and cancers of the lung, skin and digestive system, especially among children. He also blamed the munitions for causing a rise on congenital diseases and deformities.

"Iraq requests the creation of an international tribunal to put US and British officials on trial for crimes against humanity and the genocide carried out by the Americans and British in Iraq and Yugoslavia," he said, accusing the governments of "deliberately concealing" the effects of the weapons "to mislead public opinion" (BBC Online, 10 Jan). Iraq also demanded compensation from the United States and the United Kingdom for the damages caused by the munitions (People's Daily, 10 Jan). Baghdad today urged the UN to open an official inquiry into the use of depleted uranium munitions by US forces. "It is a global issue," the Ath-Thawra newspaper said. "The United Nations must ... commence an honest international inquiry that it supervises itself" (Agence France-Presse, 11 Jan).

Editorial Encourages NATO Investigation

A Chicago Tribune editorial says blaming the deaths of NATO peacekeepers on depleted uranium "seems to be a real stretch," noting that depleted uranium has 40% less radioactivity than natural uranium ore and that the claims aren't backed by scientific studies. The editorial goes on to say, however, that the United States and its NATO allies should investigate the possible hazards of depleted uranium. "The biggest danger, for now, seems to be the growing potential that European allies could lose some faith in US leadership of the alliance," the editorial says. "That won't happen if the US cooperates fully with Europe's inquiries" (Chicago Tribune, 11 Jan)


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