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NZ Should Follow Belgian Uranium Munitions Ban

Media Release by Depleted Uranium Education Team, c/o Disarmament & Security Centre, PO Box 8390, Christchurch

Belgium First State to Ban Uranium Munitions;
New Zealand Should Become the Second

On Sunday 21 June, Belgium’s 2007 decision to ban the use, sale, manufacture, testing and transit of Uranium in all conventional munitions and armour comes into force.

The historic and courageous decision by Belgium’s Parliament to lead on this issue came after its members unanimously accepted that a growing body of evidence linking Uranium with potential health problems supported a precautionary approach to the use of such weapons.1 In particular, their use by US and UK military in Iraq and Afghanistan has raised international concern about the long-term health effects, associated with mystery illnesses and genetic damage among veterans and Iraqi and Afghan citizens. This echoed experiences of veterans of nuclear tests, and from the Vietnam War when veterans were exposed to Agent Orange.

Depleted Uranium (DU) is waste from production of “enriched” natural Uranium used in nuclear weapons or fuelling of nuclear reactors. It is an extremely heavy (1.7 times denser than lead) and hard metal, and makes very effective armour-piercing munitions, known as Kinetic Energy penetrators. The penetrator is a long dart of solid DU, which uses kinetic energy to punch through armour instead of a chemical explosive. On impact DU ignites, burning at a very high temperature, forming Uranium Oxide, and creating a fume of fine dust like smoke which can pass through gas masks and into the body. This dust causes both heavy-metal and radiation poisoning.

After New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) personnel deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, in 2004 a group of concerned Christchurch citizens called the Depleted Uranium Education Team (DUET) decided there was an urgent need to raise awareness about the health risks of these inhumane weapons, which threaten to become the “Agent Orange of the 21st Century”.

In February last year, when the NZ Government hosted an international conference in Wellington to finalise a treaty banning cluster bombs, DUET launched a petition asking the NZ Parliament to “emulate the Belgian Parliament’s decision of 22 March 2007 by prohibiting in New Zealand the manufacture, use, storage, sale, acquisition, supply and transit of inert munitions and armour that contain depleted uranium [DU] or any other industrially manufactured uranium.”

Petition sponsor, Rev Rob Ritchie: “DUET argued that the international campaign to ban DU munitions would receive a major boost if nuclear-free New Zealand, which was also leading the campaign to ban cluster munitions, emulated Belgium’s lead. By signing this petition, Kiwis could help our Parliament decide to adopt a similar ban here.”

With over 3,000 signatures collected, last August DUET members testified before the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee. In telephone link-ups, they were supported by Dirk van der Maelen, the Belgian MP who led the campaign to secure a national ban, and Dr Rosalie Bertell, a distinguished American expert on the health effects of low-level radioactivity.

Following last November’s elections, leadership of the Foreign Affairs Committee passed from Labour to National. The new Chair, John Hayes, requested further briefings from DUET, the Chief of the Defence Force Lieutenant General Jerry Mateparae, and Brigadier Anne Campbell, Director of NZDF Medical Services.

Ex-British Navy Commander Robert Green represented DUET: “I am concerned about the complacency of the NZDF leadership, with troops in Afghanistan. In 2005, we organised the first speaking tour here by a British expert, Dr Chris Busby. He persuaded the NZDF to increase the sensitivity of urine tests for deployed forces, but not to the level needed to detect the nanoparticle size toxic and radioactive dust inhaled or ingested where these munitions have been used.”

With the Foreign Affairs Committee about to decide what to do about the petition, DUET urges them to recommend that New Zealand adopts the precautionary principle, and becomes the second state after Belgium to ban all aspects of uranium munitions. If Belgium, a US ally hosting NATO HQ, could do it, then nuclear-free New Zealand should come in behind it.

The Problem

• The US and UK military used DU munitions in the 1991 Gulf War, in the Balkans in 1999, and over 1000 tonnes in Iraq since 2003. They have also probably been used in Afghanistan from 2001, and by Israel in Lebanon, 2006.
• The US and UK governments and military claim that DU munitions pose no health problems. However, they are very secretive about using them, and have refused to allow independent field research in Iraq or Afghanistan.
• About one third of the 800,000 veterans of the 1991 Gulf War now claim disability benefits for mystery illnesses consistent with radiation exposure.
• There was a sharp increase in cancers and child deformities in Iraq after 1991 and 2003, and in Afghanistan after 2001.
• Alpha particles radiating from dust in vulnerable tissues can damage DNA, leading to cancer, birth defects and other health effects (see www.llrc.org ).
• Uranium can bind chemically to DNA, where it also causes damage.
• Evidence for this comes from a study of US veterans’ children conceived since the Gulf War: 67% of the children exhibit rare illnesses and genetic problems.

What Has Been Done About It?

• The NZ Defence Force (NZDF) does not have any DU munitions. NZDF personnel returning from Iraq or Afghanistan have to provide urine samples for testing for Uranium levels. However, more sensitive testing is needed.
• The International Campaign to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW) has drafted an enforceable global treaty along the lines of the Conventions banning chemical and biological weapons (see www.bandepleteduranium.org).
• With a long legacy of experience of inhumane weapons going back to chemical weapons in World War 1, Belgium was also the first country in the world to ban anti-personnel land mines and cluster bombs which, like DU munitions, have also been classified as inhumane and indiscriminate by the United Nations and legal experts.
• The increasing uncertainty over their potential to damage health has seen the issue rise swiftly up the international disarmament agenda in recent years. Two United Nations General Assembly resolutions have highlighted potential health concerns, while a 2008 European Parliament resolution requesting an immediate moratorium on their use was supported by 94% of its members.2,3 However, unlike Belgium the NZ Government has not submitted a report to the UN General Assembly.
• Three UN Security Council members continue to deny any links between the use of DU munitions and ill health. In December 2008, the US, UK and France, along with Israel, sought to block a resolution calling for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to update their positions on the weapons in light of new data on their potential to damage human health. The resolution was supported by 141 states, including many NATO members such as Germany, Italy and Finland. Earlier this year, NATO accepted the need to reconsider the use of depleted uranium and will abide by the decision of the WHO when it publishes a fresh assessment on the latest research next year.4
• However, campaigners and scientists remain concerned over whether the WHO will give an independent and scientifically balanced view on the issue. The organisation’s previous statement on depleted uranium in 2003 was roundly criticised for excluding peer-reviewed data showing that uranium is genotoxic, or capable of damaging DNA and therefore causing mutations that may lead to cancer. The papers had been included in the report’s first draft but were apparently later removed at the behest of the WHO’s management.5

1. Belgium bans uranium weapons and armour: http://www.bandepleteduranium.org/en/a/118.html
2. 141 States support resolution calling for UN agencies to update their positions in light of health concerns: http://www.bandepleteduranium.org/en/a/224.html
3. European Parliament passes far-reaching DU resolution in landslide vote: http://www.bandepleteduranium.org/en/a/181.html
4. NATO prepared to take a fresh look at uranium weapons: http://www.bandepleteduranium.org/en/a/268.html
5. BBC: Senior scientist with the United Nations has told the BBC that studies showing that DU is carcinogenic were suppressed from a seminal World Health Organisation report.


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