Use of Depleted Uranium in Iraq Could Bring British Forces to the ICC
John de Boer (Research Associate, GLOCOM)
The Inter Press News Agency (IPS) reported just a week ago that a multinational coalition made up of jurists and civil society groups will gather in London, UK between 24-25 May to examine the conduct of American, British and Iraqi troops during their latest conflict in Iraq. The meeting has been called to "establish the criteria for determining what constitutes war crimes, crimes against humanity and aggression". According to Ushani Agalawatta of IPS, the initiative is in part a response to the US decision to set up its own tribunal to try alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in the nation that it invaded last month (15 April). However, most question the independence, thoroughness and legitimacy of a US dictated tribunal and fear that it will represent "victors justice" by prosecuting only potential Iraqi war criminals. The ultimate objective of this legal coalition is to present the evidence to the International Criminal Court for prosecution. As the US is not a party to the ICC, the court has no jurisdiction over its troops. However, the spotlight could fall on the UK as it is a party and therefore accountable to the ICC.
While the battle conduct of UK troops in Iraq is viewed as having been "relatively better" than their US counterparts (see EU Report #49), British forces may face serious problems as a result of their use of depleted uranium (DU). DU is a form of low-grade uranium used in shells and rockets to make them harder allowing them to pierce through tank armor and heavy concrete installations such as bunkers. Many scientists have linked DU to the Gulf War Syndrome, which has affected over 100,000 US troops, and thousands of British, Canadian and French who served in the 1991 Gulf War. DU has also been noted as a possible cause of the rampant rise in infant mortality rates, deformed babies, cancer and early pregnancy abortion in Iraq between 1991-1997. An IAEA report published on 29 September 1999 (GC(43)/INF/20) cited heavy coalition bombardment as having played a part in this rise. The UN Commission on Atomic Radiation indicated in April 1999, that some 700-800 tons of DU was used in the last Gulf War (see Christian Scherrer, Znet, 13 April 2003), an amount sufficient to cause 500,000 radiation cases which may lead to death (the Pentagon only admits to the use of 300 tons (IPS, 1 April)).
According to Scherrer's estimates, 2,000 tons of DU weapons and ammunition have been used by US and UK forces in the latest war. The Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence in London admit to using such weaponry most notably by their M1A1 and M1A2 Abram tanks (US), Bradley fighting vehicles (US), A10 ground attack aircraft, bunker-buster missiles, and Challenger tanks (UK).
Ever since DU weaponry was used in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro in the early to mid-1990's, Europeans have become extremely aware of the detrimental health and environmental impact that such weapons have. Although the US and British governments deny that DU is harmful, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) recently confirmed that, "DU from weapons used in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1994 and 1995 has contaminated local supplies of drinking water, and can still be found in dust particles suspended in the air" (Environmental News Service, 26 March 2003).
Ian Willmore of the environmental NGO, Friends of the Earth, states that about 50-90% of the particles released by the explosion of DU weaponry are of respirable size to which our body has no defensive mechanism (IPS, 1 April). According to him there is "scientific consensus" that high exposure causes damage to kidneys, neurological disorders and cancer of the lungs and bones.
UNEP further concluded that it takes 25-35 years for radioactive DU weapons buried near the ground to corrode completely. It has been seven years since these munitions were used in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the UNEP continues to record contamination in the air and water.
It is the indiscriminate nature of DU weaponry that makes them illegal. As Scherrer has pointed out, the Human Rights Commission banned DU usage in 1996 (Sub. 2), stating that the use of DU weapons constitutes a crime against humanity. DU is indiscriminate when used as a weapon, its effects are out of proportion with military objectives, they have long-term and adverse effects on the environment and they cause superfluous injury and unnecessary suffering (see Christian Scherrer, Znet, 13 April).
Regardless of whether UK troops were impeccable in their conduct during combat (yet to be determined), their use of banned DU weaponry should make them prosecutable under international law. All Iraqis, UK and US forces as well as Japanese personnel that may arrive as part of the "reconstruction" effort, are susceptible to the effects of these illegal weapons. A thorough and independent investigation is needed to determine the actual damage that DU caused in Iraq.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi once offered Japan's participation to investigate and dispose of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). If he is indeed keen on doing so, perhaps he should send a team of Japanese experts to clean up the depleted uranium (a WMD) to ensure that the right to life of all Iraqi citizens is respected. Unfortunately, the cost may make him think twice. The bill for a full clean up of 200 hectares costs up to $5 billion US (IPS, Sanjay Suri, 1 April). With over 2,000 tons of such weaponry having been used, DU will likely be a part of Iraqi life, or death, for decades to come.
- Ushani Agalawatta, "Group launch war crimes probe", Inter Press Service, 15 April 2003
- Sanjay Suri, "New fears from depleted uranium", Inter Press Service, 1 April 2003
- "Depleted Uranium Contaminates Bosnia-Herzegovina", Environmental News Service, 26 March 2003
- Christian Scherrer, "Depleted Uranium and the Liberation of Iraq: A report from Hiroshima", Znet.com, 13 April 2003