Why Weapons Containing Depleted Uranium Are Illegal
A Bring Them Home Now! Special Report
Sep 30, 2003
by Karen Parker, J.D.
There are two ways to determine
if the use of a particular weapon in military operations is illegal. The
easiest way is if the weapon is used in violation
of a treaty that forbids its use and the State using it is a party to that
treaty. If there is no treaty on a specific weapon, then one must determine
if the use of that weapon would violate existing rules and principles of binding
humanitarian (armed conflict) law. Under these rules (the "weapons test") – derived
from The Hague Conventions, the Geneva Conventions, and all other sources of
military law – a weapon may be banned if:
(1) it has harmful effects outside the legal field of battle (the "geography" test);
(2) it has harmful effects after the war is over (the "time" test);
(3) its use is unduly inhuman or causes undue suffering (the "humaneness" test); or
(4) it has a harmful effect on the environment (the "environment" test). The first two tests arise from the requirement that weapons may not be indiscriminate. Because there is no specific weapon treaty forbidding the use of depleted uranium, the illegality of DU must be shown by the second method.
Weaponry containing depleted uranium (DU) fails all four tests. It is indiscriminate in geography as the effects of DU weapons cannot be contained to the legal military targets. Instead is air-born far afield of legal targets to illegal (civilian) targets: hospitals, schools, civilian dwellings and even neighboring countries with which the user is not at war. DU weapons are indiscriminate in time, and cannot be "turned off" when the war is over. Even with rigorous clean-up of war zones, the air-born particles have a half life of billions of years and can keep killing and injuring former combatants and non-combatants long after the war is over. DU weapons "kill" in inhumane ways, causing cancers, kidney problems, eye problems, lung diseases, and according to the medical researchers who have investigated it, many other serious conditions. Additionally, DU weapons cause disabilities in the children of those exposed – cranial-facial anomalies, missing limbs, grossly deformed and non-viable infants and the like – so in this sense are tetragenic. As these conditions can occur to non-combatants or may arise long after military operations have concluded, DU weapons are necessarily inhumane. The tetragenic nature of DU weapons raises the possibility of a genocidal effect. Finally, DU weapons unduly contaminate the natural environment, including water and agricultural land necessary for the subsistence of the civilian population for beyond the lifetime of that population.
The effects of DU weapons were presented to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights by this author at its Spring 1996 session. At the Summer 1996 session of the United Nations Sub-Commission on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, the Sub-Commission passed a resolution finding the use DU weapons "incompatible" with existing humanitarian law, reaching the same conclusion that the author had reached. That resolution also began a series of initiatives by the Sub-Commission on DU weapons and several other weapons of concern, including fuel-air bombs, cluster bombs, "bunker busters" and the like. In 1997 the Secretary-General submitted a report to the Sub-Commission (U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/27 and Adds) that contains the concerns submitted by this author and a number of States and non-governmental organizations. After the failure of one member to submit a requested paper, in 2001 the Sub-Commission appointed its member Justice Yeung Sik Yuen (Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Mauritius) to prepare a paper on this topic. In his paper submitted the next year (U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/2002/38), Justice Sik Yuen provides a detailed analysis of the sources of humanitarian law and why DU weapons are illegal. He submitted a follow-up paper (U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/2003/35) repeating the legal conclusion about the illegality of DU and incorporating concerns raised by the second war against Iraq. He and other members of the Sub-Commission pointed out Article 3 of The Hague Convention of 1907 establishing liability for compensation. International law also requires users of illegal weapons to carry out effective clean-up. Use of illegal weapons may also subject the user State and its military comanders to trials for violations of the Geneva Convention in States who are party to the Geneva Conventions.
Karen Parker received her J.D. (honors) from University of San Francisco School of Law and her Diplome (cum laude) in International and Comparative Law of Human Rights from the Institut International des Droits d'Homme (Strasbourg). She has represented human rights and humanitarian law concerns at the United Nations for over 20 years, since 1996 on behalf of International Educational Development/Humanitarian Law Project, a non-governmental organization with UN credentials.
In plain English, Karen Parker is telling us that the US may find itself subject to lawsuits, responsible for a hugely expensive clean-up and even forced to defend some government and military officials facing war crimes trials for the criminal and deadly use of depleted uranium munitions on the ordinary people of Iraq (poisoning our own troops in the meantime). –BTHN!