A report by the Campaign Against Depleted Uranium (CADU) “Managing acceptability: UK policy on depleted uranium weapons” shows that the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) has deliberately downplayed the hazards of depleted uranium (DU) despite being aware of the potential risks associated with these weapons since their development during the Cold War.
In attempts to retain its stocks and continue to use DU munitions, the MoD has carefully managed both cabinet discussions and information relayed to the public over the hazards related to depleted uranium because it knew it would be controversial and problematic, the report finds.
The MoD’s policy has remained largely unchanged since the 1960s and it continues to put its desire to keep DU weapons over obligations to protection civilians from the harmful effects posed by these weapons.
The UK’s controversial policy on DU weapons continues in spite of mounting international concern over the harm caused by DU to military personnel, civilians and the environment. Two countries have outlawed these weapons – Belgium and Costa Rica, and DU has been the focus of UN and European Parliament resolutions. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has called on states to take a precautionary approach to these weapons.
The MoD is currently faced with a decision over whether to extend the life of its remaining stocks of DU munitions.
Summary of recommendations by CADU:
It is pertinent that the UK government:
Accelerate efforts to remove DU munitions from the UK’s arsenal.
The UK should take the opportunity to display international leadership and set a date for the removal of CHARM3 from its arsenal. It should accept that DU’s use runs counter to civilian and environmental protection norms and has no place in contemporary conflict.
Assess the potential humanitarian and environmental impact of toxic munition components.
This should begin at the earliest stage of development or during procurement and remain an ongoing requirement throughout the lifespan of the weapons. Assessments should be undertaken in a transparent manner to facilitate the input from academia and independent experts. Where components are found to be potentially hazardous, steps should be taken to identify less toxic alternatives.
Extend its precautionary approach to encompass civilian risk reduction and decontamination.
The MoD should seek to bridge the gulf between the precautionary approach it takes to the protection of its own troops and the management of DU contamination on its own properties and its obligations for assisting communities affected by the use of DU weapons.
Reassess its approach to managing scientific uncertainty.
Domestic environmental and health protection norms stemming from UK and EU environmental law uphold the precautionary approach which entails that due care and attention should be taken in the face of scientific uncertainties. The MoD must pay heed to this principle in considering the effect of its weaponry on civilian health and the environment during conflict. The claimed utility of munitions should not be employed by the MoD as a means of overruling this principle.
Create formalised mechanisms to provide greater scrutiny over MoD weapons policy.
Increasing focus on inhumane, indiscriminate and controversial weapons during the last two decades has underlined the need for more balanced debate over how the MoD chooses its methods and means of warfare. New technologies such as drones and autonomous robots will again test the responsiveness of the MoD to humanitarian concerns, even as criticism grows of the lack of scrutiny over MoD policy for the assessment of the legality of new weapons. Parliament and civil society should have a stronger, more formalised role in these debates in order to add a democratic counterbalance to the interests of the MoD.
Did you find this story interesting? Please support AOAV's work and donate.