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The Environmental Impacts of Modern Warfare:
Depleted Uranium in Iraq and Kosovo
by Dana Williams

 

The Geneva Conventions, Article 55: "Care shall be taken in warfare to protect the natural environment against widespread, long-term, and severe damage. This protection includes a prohibition of the use of methods or means of warfare which are intended or may be expected to cause such damage to the natural environment and thereby to prejudice the health or survival of the population."

 

Introduction on war:
The United States military used weapons on Iraq and Kosovo that could potentially be seen as a quiet "Hiroshima": depleted uranium tipped projectiles. The conflicting stories from the US military, the governments of these targeting countries, and third party observers have herein been examined for the intent of understanding the potential environmental damage due to the use of these weapons. In order to understand this specific weapon and the circumstances of its usage and side effects, the context of modern-day warfare must be first understood.

War has always been an act that deeply cuts across the grain of any society. It can be argued that all attempts to "humanize" or "lessen the costs" of war have been superficial, meaningless, and ineffective gestures. In 1932, Albert Einstein attended a conference in Geneva on limiting weaponry and war, and said this: "One does make wars less likely by formulating rules of warfare... War cannot be humanized. It can only be abolished."1

War already has dangerous consequences on the environment, and subsequently human beings. Deforestation, water contamination, erosion, fire, pollution via damaged buildings and industries, and the destruction of animal habitat are all potential conflicts of war-irregardless of the war being waged on the ground or from the air. Such things can result in forced migration, disease, starvation, maiming, intoxication, and death for humans. The use of newer weapons alongside of already known environmentally-damaging ways of waging war only further exacerbates the dangers of war.

In every instance of war in the 20th Century, casualties have included soldiers, but civilians, the environment, and whatever political stability existed where the war was waged. The Persian Gulf War in 1991 and the Kosovo War of 1999 are both examples of this repeating and deadly scenario.

Depleted Uranium:
One weapon of extreme risk and controversy that debuted in the Persian Gulf War is depleted uranium (DU)-tipped ammunitions. These weapons, which come in the form of shells, missiles, bombs, and bullets, are used for their extremely dense and heavy nature, which allow them to pierce tank armor. For example, it is claimed that when fired at a speed of 1,200 meters per second it can pierce a block of concrete three meters underground.

Upon impact, the DU weapons create a radioactive cloud of debris that can easily be inhaled or suspended in the air. Post-impact is the most dangerous point for the weapon, for both the environment and humans, since it can most easily move locations. Once penetrating the lung tissue and entering the blood stream, the DU can become stored in the liver, kidney, and bone of the body, thus irradiating all the delicate tissues. People exposed to DU can have traces in their urine years after exposure.

DU, a byproduct of industrial nuclear uranium processing, has been desired for military purposes by the US, since a 1979 memorandum, in which the Department of Defense argued for its usage. Due to its use as a highly powerful weapon, its relatively cheap and abundant supply, and the nuclear industry's problem of what to do with all of its nuclear waste, the use of DU in weaponry became a highly desirable solution for warfare. A 1991 federal budget provision sought 130,000 tons of DU for military uses (Abdelkrim, 1999).

Thus, due to these factors, DU was heavily used in the Persian Gulf and Kosovo, with the US admitting to using 340 tons during the Gulf War, and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) claiming that 31,000 DU bullets were fired by A-10 "tankbusters", and a Belgrade report estimating the number was more on the order of 50,000 DU bullets all over the region (CNN, 2001 and Peterson, 2000). Thus, it is clear that large amounts of this chemical have been released into these two regions. Although there is disagreement on the effects of DU on people and the environment, no one denies the highly thorough use of these weapons.

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) estimated that there are four major sources for major significant levels of exposure from the use of DU during NATO's war in Kosovo: contaminated hands, water, food, and soil in the mouth. Of these four means of exposure, the risk from contaminated water is the highest. In many areas of Kosovo, the wells were not very deep, and there is often no confining layer that could protect aquifers from DU seepage (UNEP, 2001). The WHO's Fact Sheet on DU states that "the behaviour of uranium and DU in the body is identical radiologically and chemically" and that "a radiation dose from it would be about 60% of that from purified natural uranium with the same mass" (WHO, 2001).

UNEP also stated that its field study mission in Kosovo that the majority of the 10 tons of DU penetrators are probably buried deep in the soil. Yet, it observes that DU presence in lichen suggests that dust has spread over the environment from the time of attack and explosion. UNEP warns that the surface area and dissolution rate increases when the penetrator forms an aerosol (or dust) upon impact. Once within the soil, if DU makes contact with organic matter, it becomes absorbed. UNEP has accordingly encouraged the study of links between soil and water contamination, and the food chain and human health (UNEP, 2001).

Environmental justice is the equitable distribution of exposure to adverse environmental hazards. Xia (1998) states that issues of environmental justice "inherently involve locations of environmental hazards and groups of people". Such a view relates to this situation since Iraqis and Kosovars are facing unequal and unjust levels of exposure to DU hazards, at a rather frightening, in fact.

Actors:
There are many political actors that have roles to play in the controversy over DU. They include the producers, sellers, users, victims, observers, evaluators, and watchdogs of global society. More specifically, actors are states (user states, victim states, observer states), NGO's (both environmental, human rights, and others), NATO, the UN Security Council, other agencies and programmes of the UN (specifically the GA, UNEP, and WHO), corporations (including TNC's), the international nuclear industry, and those involved in the arms trade. These three latter actors work in conjunction with the military of the US in the form of the military industrial complex.

The following is a breakdown of these varying actors and their interest in the issue of DU and its usage.

The primary actors in regards to DU are states. The foremost country in the use of DU is the US. They used it heavily on both Iraq and Kosovo, and are the leading proponents of DU as a cheap and effective weapon. The US government denies any linkages between health problems, environmental hazards, and DU. It is also used by the UK, which stands by a similar position as the US.

States that have been targeted by DU, like Iraq and Kosovo, decry its usage; be the results real or merely claimed, they condemn DU and those who use it (UN, 2000b). Other states throughout the world have also been critical of DU, such as in Europe, which was recently struck by controversy relating to illnesses of NATO troops. Germany has gone so far as to call for a ban on DU (FAIR, 2001).

Non-governmental organizations have voiced concerns over the usage of DU. One of note is the International Action Center, formed by former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark. This issue has been one of their long-standing programs and they push for creating global momentum to ban DU (Caldicott, 1997).

NATO has been a reassuring voice, trying to calm the uproar of DU, especially in Europe. The official position of NATO is that there is nothing wrong with DU, and member states (such as the US and UK) continue to hold DU arsenals and use them, as in the case of the Kosovo War or 1999. As previously mentioned, though, not all NATO member states support the use of DU, such as Italy, France, Portugal who have also demanded a NATO investigation of the impacts of DU (FAIR, 2001).

The United Nations in some ways has been complacent, supportive, and critical of DU. Since the UN is a large and multi-faceted organization, not all programmes, councils, and assemblies need to agree, see eye-to-eye, or even discuss the same matters. The UN Security Council condemned Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and thus subsequently supported the use of DU by the allied forces on Iraq.

Following the NATO war in Kosovo, NATO alerted the UN that DU had been used (UN, 2000a). The UN Environmental Programme ran two investigations into first the environmental impact of the war and then the impact of DU specifically (UNEP, 1999 and 2001).

Trans-National Corporations (TNCs) are corporations that can easily cross over national boundaries to buy, sell, produce, and use resources of more than one country. They produce the DU bullets and also the aircraft that shoot the bullets. The bullets have been produced now for about 20 nations, in many cases with the assistance of TNCs. US companies receive the radioactive waste that DU weapons are made from nearly free of charge (Peterson, 2000). The TNCs who produce these weapons have the most to financially gain from their usage. Also, it should be pointed out that TNCs that have been scrambling for bids to rebuild the devastated Balkans region after the Kosovo War, which portrays another direct interest that they have when war occurs (Chomsky, 1999).

It might be a difficult argument to convince some of, but another actor is the military industrial complex within the US. This "complex" includes both the aforementioned US government and TNCs. They have an agenda that is sometimes in conflict with other parts of the US government. It is mainly centered on the Pentagon, the main center of military coordination, decision-making, and organization. The agenda they promote is often times independent and removed from US legislation and policy. Thus, it is not the US Congress or President who decided that DU is a desirable weapon of choice, but the inner-workings of the Pentagon, which is not open to any public scrutiny or oversight. To the Pentagon, DU offers a very affordable, effective, and thorough means of conducting war, which is the Pentagon's main directive. This actor acts out of self-interest for itself and its partners in government and business.

Relevant treaties:
The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT) was signed in 1968 and took effect in 1970, saying primarily two things: 1) the peaceful application of nuclear technologies should be made available to all, and 2) the spread of nuclear weapons undermines international peace and security (UN, 1968). Since DU employs nuclear technology (specifically nuclear materials), the proliferation and use of DU would appear to fall under the NPT.

Pilger also correctly notes that the US and UK were engaged in a form of "nuclear warfare in the Balkans" as he points to the UN Human Rights Tribunal calling DU a "weapon of mass destruction" (WMD) in 1996 (1999). This is the same classification often given to Iraq's former weapons program that the US alleges still exists. WMD fall into the three categories of biological, chemical, and nuclear. With nuclear components included in DU weapons it is clear that they could be classified as a WMD.

There exist many treaties that address the rights of individuals and prohibit the targeting of non-combatants. Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone "has the right to life, liberty and security of person." The Geneva Convention, which went into force in 1950, states that persons not involved in waging war cannot be subjected to the same elements of war that combatants can (Article 3). The 1977 additions to the Geneva Conventions further extend civilian protections during war. Protection from environmental damage is also written into the 1977 additions, such as Article 55 that states that the natural environment should be protected against long-term, widespread, and severe damage. It also emphasizes that any action (intentional or unintentional) that may damage the environment-and therefore the health and survival of the resident population-is also prohibited.

Therefore, the use of DU, which can have grave consequences on civilians, is in direct violation of numerous international laws prohibiting such actions. Whereas conventional weapons (bombs, bullets, etc.) do their damage immediately, DU (and other weapons such as land mines) can continue to poison and damage people and the environment long into the future-and in the case of DU for as long as 4.5 billion years.

Conflicts:
Among states, there is a clear division of those in support of DU weapons and those opposing DU weapons, with a number of states that reside on the sidelines. User states proclaim their safety and assert that they are not causing Persian Gulf War Syndrome or Balkans War Syndrome, nor the increasing cases of leukemia in both war zones. They deny linkages between these illnesses and the use of DU, and say there is not enough conclusive scientific evidence to makes such claims and linkages.

Targeted states, however, such as Iraq and Kosovo are very adamant in condemning the use of DU. In fact, Iraq's representative in the Disarmament and Security Committee in the UN, Saeed Hasan, takes every opportunity to criticize these weapons and those who use them (the US and UK), and calls for their abolishment.

Other state actors have entered the fray, as previous mentioned, specifically those with military personnel involved in the NATO action in Kosovo. At least 12 soldiers who served in the NATO Balkans operation have died from leukemia or other forms of cancer: six Italians, five Belgians, and one Portuguese. Also being treated for cancer are several other Italians, Spanish, French, and Dutch soldiers (FAIR, 2001). Europe is thus in a deep debate about DU and the effects it has on people and the environment.

Internal disputes also exist, as US and UK activists and others are decrying DU usage and other types of warfare, contrary to their government's official stance and policy. These groups work to interject criticisms into the mass media, to pressure lawmakers and policy makers, and to educate others on opinions and findings that are in contradiction to the official US and UK positions. As with all forms of political activism and pressure, these efforts have had varying results, but more and more of these issues and ideas are being proliferated, with the appearance of books and articles on the subject of DU, and especially with the assistance of the Internet.

Tragedy of the commons
The "tragedy of the commons" analogy has explicit relevance in the case of DU usage. The commons are viewed as land that all have access to and that resources (or benefits-such as clean water) can be extracted from. The use of DU on Iraq and Kosovo have unilaterally "extracted" from the environment, meaning that the potential for clean water, arable land, and a health environment have been reduced. However, it might be more accurate to say that DU users have contributed negative impacts to the commons, as opposed to subtracted positive ones.

The intent of the commons is for all parties that have "access" to the land, act with respect and mutual consideration to all other parties. When militaries use DU on the land and people of countries, they are not taking the rights of others to live free of contamination and radiation into consideration. In the traditional commons of Britain, this did not cause the downfall of the commons (despite what the original author of the "Tragedy of the commons" Garrett Hardin asserted), but it was the innovations of agriculture, the Industrial Revolution, and other like events that led to land-grabbing opportunists (Buck, 1985).

The commons analogy extends to DU in the sense that it is actual direct damage of commonly entrusted land (the Earth), without regard for those living there-who should in fact have more access and control than outsiders.

On a more global level, DU acts as an increasingly proliferated weapon and toxin, both in the hands of militaries and the soils of their adversaries and targets. As a global society, these governments and militaries are adding negatives (radiation, contamination, disease, pollution, general destruction) places on the earth, while subtracting positives which all people should have access to (clean water, non-polluted soils, the ability to walk outside without getting blown up or inhaling DU-aerosols). Just as in the "tragedy of the commons", it is necessary for all actors to act responsibly and considerably towards others that their actions can effect, whether intentionally or not.

Other impediments to progress:
Philosophical arguments exist that suggest that even if "not enough" proof exists to irrevocably claim that DU is responsible for cancer and environmental damage, that the minimization of risk is required. Akin to the assertion that "global climate change is not occurring", there exists the question of whether we should not still reduce and eliminate any potential risks or contributing factors to such a problem, even without evidence. Such is the case with DU.

Due to the powerful actors of the world-specifically the US and UK-who say that DU is relatively "harmless" (as if any weapon would ever be designed to be harmless!) it is unlikely that a collective world solution will present itself without the participation of such actors. With the power and influence these actors retain, a resolution or declaration against DU (even in the United Nations) would have little control over the US, who can easily and unilaterally ignore any such statement. Also, due to the nature of treaties in the international system, a document must not only be signed, but also ratified by a state's government, and then, if a complaint or suit is lodged against them, the state must submit to the judgment of an international court. Such a chain of events is not often accepted willingly by the powerful of the world; it is easier to ignore any or all actions that the US wants to, since it is in their power to do so.

With a voluntary system, such as the UN, there is no enforcement mechanism, even for those states that have claimed to submit themselves to the UN's global authority. The permanent member states of the Security Council add another layer of dictatorship to world affairs, where any of the five permanent members (China, France, Russia, UK, and US) can veto any majority decision, thus creating deadlock, especially on the issues of world peace and security. Unfortunately, the international system operates on the basis that "might makes right".

At the core of the reluctance to condemn DU is the insidious and "quiet" nature. Like previously mentioned, the DU controversy bears many striking similarities to global climate change. The issue is so broadly defined, with so many aspects and caveats, potential risks, avenues for contamination, and ways to define risk. This is compounded by the nature of war itself that is complex and chaotic, (also like climatology) which creates a fluctuating and unstable basis for analysis.

Many silent threats to people and the environment, like acid rain, cancer, or groundwater pollution, require the creation of a causal relationship between an event and its result. Whereas with a landmine or a bullet in which the result of the event can be clearly (and appallingly) observed, DU follows in the more difficult realm of dangers that are easier to deny.

Conclusions / recommendations:
In the field of geography, there is the maxim that all things should be subjected to a regiment of three questions: "What is there? Why is it there? And what should we do about it?" In the case of the use of depleted uranium, the first two questions answer themselves easily. Contaminated projectiles and penetrators cover battlefields in two separate nations and they are there because certain states have considered it to be a cost-effective, politically expedient, and robust way of waging wars that those states have deemed necessary to fight.

The third question of what is to be done is also easy, yet complex. Confronted with the readily available evidence to the detrimental environmental impacts of DU usage, only the indifferent, uncaring, or insane would continue to use it. Yet, similar logic also failed the so-called "super-powers" as they armed themselves to the teeth to fight a "hot war" that neither was prepared to start.

The immediate removal of DU weapons from military arsenals and weapon stockpiles is the moral, ethical, and environmentally responsible option. But, how politically feasible is this? In short, not very. The states that possess these weapons use them because they want to and because they can. Kind words and pleading will not prevent them from doing so whenever they feel like it.

The desirable end of DU weapon removal from war could be started by an international ban. In order to be effective, all parties, specifically those possessing DU weapons, need to have serious commitments to doing so, otherwise such a declaration is hollow rhetoric. Thus, states that would otherwise be hesitant to support such a ban need to be politically convinced (or coerced?) to do so by all actors, internally and externally. Moral, economic, political, and physical weight should be brought to bear in efforts to convince certain states (like the US) to sign such a ban.

Political lobbying campaigns, economic and political boycott, protests and demonstrations (including appropriate direct action and civil disobedience), and good-old-fashion public shaming should all be employed. It is the obligation of those with voices to speak out against such methods of indiscriminately waging war and harming people and the environment, even if "not all reports are in" on the direct relationship between contamination and disease. The use of a thing such as uranium-which has killed, harmed, deformed, and destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives-should not be tolerated by anyone for any reason.

The silence in the US over DU is so complete that it is enraging. The utter contempt and depravity of these weapons and those who wield them should be condemned from every corner of the earth, for as long as it takes. Only once the cruel methods of war have been dismantled can we begin dialogue for how to end all war, indefinitely.

 

Sources:
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1. Zinn, Howard. (1997) "Just and unjust war". Zinn reader. New York: Seven Stories Press. Page 233.

 

Environmental Politics