Centuries ago, armies were fighting armies on a battleground outside of civilian areas. But with new weapon technologies and change of conflict dynamics and battlegrounds, nowadays 90 % of the victims of armed conflict are civilians. While soldiers have all sorts of means at their disposition to protect themselves during and after armed conflict, civilians are barely protected against the range of weapons deployed, such as depleted uranium (DU). A recently issued report by IKV Pax Christi reveals this gap and provides civilian centered strategies for protection against exposure to DU.
[By Wim Zwijnenburg]
Not surprisingly, armed forces have strict guidelines. These have to protect troops against a range of explosive and chemical residues, including those resulting from the use of landmines, cluster munitions, unexploded ordnance’s (UXOs) and nuclear, biological and chemical weapons in case they are deployed. The guidelines are drawn up to protect the troops against exposure and limit the potential harm posed by these weapons. Clearance operations during and after armed conflict are developed to remove these weapons from the battlefield, especially because of harmful effects on civilians living in areas where the weapons have been deployed. A majority of states have recognized these threats, hence the ban on landmines and cluster munitions and several conventions on chemical, biological and toxic weapons.
Legitimate conventional weapons
Quite interestingly, depleted uranium (DU) munitions are still considered legitimate conventional weapons. Despite ongoing debates in the UN, several bans on DU by States and an international campaign to ban DU weapons, little interest is shown to tackle this issue once and for all. The main reason given by states for this inertia is that a clear link between the use of these weapons and their potential effect on health and environment is not proven. Nonetheless, most of the armed forces operating in areas where DU has been used or suspected to have been used have guidelines in place to protect their troops against contamination with DU.
IKV Pax Christi collected military manuals and guidelines on how to deal with depleted uranium contamination from six different armed forces, including NATO guidelines. The outcome, described in the report Hazard Aware. Lessons learned from military field manuals on depleted uranium and how to move forward for civilian protection norms was that all these states recognize the potential effects on health and environment and put in place strict hygiene procedures for avoiding exposure to DU, while some states provide detailed instructions on how to deal with accidents that may occur during transportation and storage of DU. Considering the chemical toxicity and radioactivity of DU, this all makes perfect sense. Precautionary measures should be undertaken to keep exposure as low as possible.
Civilian centered strategies
However, none of these guidelines are available for civilians living in contaminated areas that are likely to be exposed to these hazardous materials on a daily basis. Over the past 25 years, DU has been used in the Balkans and Iraq, leaving over 400.000 kg of DU in the soil, and contaminated scrap is stored inside populated areas. During the course of the last two decades, numerous reports from those areas expressed concerns amongst citizens over the potential effects of those weapons, linking it to an increased numbers of cancers and birth deformations in their communities. But what is lacking is research and work by affected states to clean up those areas, remediation measures for contaminated sites and scrap yards, and research on exposure of civilians to DU. Based on the military precautionary measures, IKV Pax Christi’s report provides civilian centered strategies for protection against exposure to DU and makes recommendations for further work on DU in affected area’s, basic procedures such as transparency over the locations where DU was used, assessment of the contaminated sites, clean up operations and awareness raising for the local population. Until today, on most of the sites in the Balkans and Iraq, few of these procedures have been implemented, resulting in continued exposure of civilians to toxic remnants of war, and an international community that fails to act.
IKV Pax Christi strongly believes that DU is an unacceptable component of conventional weapons, and calls upon the international community to apply a precautionary approach to DU and ban these weapons as well as provide assistance to the affected countries in cleaning up DU munitions, hence minimizing the harm for civilians to exposure to DU in and after armed conflict.