The US and the UK used about 320 tonnes of depleted uranium weapons in the First Gulf War in 1991, then in Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo. Again DU was used in 2003 in Iraq. Mr Ingram:…..”1.9 tonnes of DU were expended by the British Challenger tanks during the recent conflict in Iraq.” Hansard 19 Jan 2004: Column 919W. Unconfirmed sources suggest it has been used in Afghanistan.
DU is nuclear waste. Uranium occurs naturally as three different isotopes, U234, U235 and U238. U238 makes up more than 99 per cent of natural uranium and is less radioactive. After natural uranium has had most of the U235 removed from it, it is called “depleted uranium”, i.e. uranium depleted in the isotope U235. Each kilo of reactor ready enriched uranium results in 11 kg of DU. So there is no shortage of it.
DU is a chemically toxic and radioactive compound. It is used in armour piercing munitions because of its very high density. It is 1.7 times denser than lead. When fired, a DU tipped penetrator pierces through the target, then explodes burning at a temperature over 3000 degrees centigrade becoming a ceramic uranium aerosol of microscopic radioactive particles. These tiny dust-like particles can travel far and easily be inhaled and ingested by civilians and military alike.. DU has a half- life of 4.5 bn years.
There are three main hazards associated with DU: its chemical toxicity, radioactivity and the effects of fine metal particles on the body. As yet, the impact of uranium oxide on the human body is not fully understood but there is mounting evidence of increased cancer rates, leukaemia, foetal abnormalities, miscarriages and premature birth. The International Coalition for Banning Uranium Weapons (ICBUW) has called for financial support to an epidemiological research project in Basra. This independent research is being carried out on the initiative of the Iraqi doctors themselves by the careful examination of pre and post 1991 cancer records. See Support the Basra Epidemiological Study.
As yet, there is no sole treaty explicitly banning the use of DU but its use goes against basic rules and principles of International Humanitarian Law as DU weapons cause excessive and indiscriminate injury and unnecessary suffering to both civilians and the military.
The prohibition of the use of poisonous weapons is contained in Art. 23 para 1 of the Hague Regulations and the rules of the Poison Gas Protocol. The prohibition of widespread damage to the natural environment and unjustified destruction appears in the Hague Regulations and the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions. The principle of ‘humanitarian proportionality’ is contained in the St. Petersburg Declaration. Additionally both Humanitarian Law and Environmental Law are based on the principle of precaution and proportionality. Two resolutions of the Sub-Commission to the UN Commission on Human Rights (1996/16 and 1997/36) state that the use of uranium ammunition is not in conformity with existing International and Human Rights Law.
There is increasing support worldwide for a treaty banning the use of DU in weapons. In 2006, the European Parliament strengthened its previous three calls for a moratorium by calling for the introduction of a total ban, classifying DU along with white phosphorous as inhumane. In 2007 Belgium became the first country in the world to ban all conventional weapons containing uranium with other states set to follow their example. There is increasing concern in the United States over DU health effects which has caused individual states to implement testing regimes for returning soldiers.