The Illegality of DU Weaponry
Mon Dec 18, 2006 21:10

Association of Humanitarian Lawyers

Weapons Containing Depleted Uranium(DU)

The Illegality of DU Weaponry
Karen Parker, JD1

This paper was prepared for the International Uranium Weapons Conference, Hamburg, Germany, October 16 - 19, 2003.


I found out about DU weaponry in 1996 and immediately began to condemn it at the United Nations human rights forums.2 I was convinced that such weaponry could not be used without violating humanitarian (armed conflict) law rules and was, accordingly banned by operation of existing law. As a consequence, their use would necessarily constitute grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and other violations of humanitarian (armed conflict). The fact that the UN took up this issue as soon as it was presented it supports my opinion.3

The presentations at the 1996 session of UN Commission on Human Rights (the Commission and at the August 1996 session of the United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, now renamed the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (the Sub-Commission) focused on the use of DU weaponry in the first Gulf War.4 At that session, members of the Sub-Commission were both highly shocked and moved by the presentations on DU weaponry5 and as a result passed a resolution (Sub-Commission resolution 1996/16) sponsored by Claire Palley (UK) in which the Sub-Commission found DU weaponry “incompatible” with existing humanitarian and human rights law. The resolution also began a procedure to address DU weaponry (and other "bad" weapons) in light of these existing norms and asked the Secretary-General to submit a report to the Sub-Commission at its 1997 session on this topic. I prepared Memorandum on Weapons and the Laws and Customs of War (IED/HLP 1997)(in CADU report) to submit to the Secretary-General, who then incorporated much of my basic analysis in his report, issued as U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1997/27 and Additions. The Secretary-General’s report also contains the views of States, other NGO’s and specialized agencies. In 1997 the Sub-Commission adopted another resolution (Sub-Commission resolution 1997/36) in which it repeated its finding that DU weaponry is “incompatible” with existing humanitarian and human rights law and asked its member Clemencia Forero Ucros to study further this issue.6

Mme Forero Ucros did not submit a paper and did not return to the Sub-Commission. At the 1998 session of the Commission on Human Rights, Claire Palley was not nominated by the UK, which instead nominated Francoise Jane Hampson who was elected. Between 1998 and 2001 our efforts turned to reinforcing the legal position with written and oral presentations (years 1998 and 1999 in CADU report), presenting new studies, having round tables and seminars, showing films, and generally trying to keep up the momentum. At the same time, we looked for a replacement for Mme Forero Ucros and kept the issue on the agenda through decisions to carry over the working paper.

At the Sub-Commission 2001 session Sub-Commission member Justice Yeung Sik Yuen agreed to take on the weapons paper and Sub-Commission member Miguel Alfonso Martinez (Cuba) introduced a decision to that effect. The Alfonso Martinez draft surfaced with sufficient signatures to pass and was “tabled” as Sub-Commission Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/2001/L.2. (In the UN, “tabled” means “ready for action” rather than “dismissed”. The “L” stands for “limited” documents, which are circulated at the sessions but not published). At that point Ms. Hampson tried to have the Sub-Commission agree to issue a separate resolution on DU weaponry, which would then be taken off the list of weapons that Sik Yuen was to address and assigned to another Member, presumably herself. She submitted amendments to draft L.2, circulated as Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/2001/L.36 forwarding this idea. Ms. Hampson appeared to not want that DU weapons be considered automatically “incompatible” with existing norms. The “other” weapons on the list to be studied are fuel air bombs, cluster bombs, chemical, biological, bacteriological and other weapons, some of which are commonly embraced under the term “weapons of mass destruction”. By requiring separate analysis of DU weaponry, the implication would be that DU weapons are not necessarily “incompatible” with existing norms.

During the debates at the 2001 session, I spoke on behalf of IED/HLP and several other NGO’s made statements about DU, as did the governments of Iraq and Yugoslavia. Not surprisingly, both the US government and the UK government spoke up strongly against this issue, and their position was widely viewed as responsible for Ms. Hampson’s attempt to sever DU from the report.7 Ms. Sim, representing the US, questioned the information that there was evidence showing that DU was harmful. And in any case, the US said a study of weapons containing DU would exceed the Sub-Commission’s “expertise, scope and mandate.” (E/CN.2/Sub.2/2001/SR.24). Mr. Bendall of the UK echoed the US, thereby showing yet again what the UK activists identify as “copy cat”, US driven policy. (E/CN.4/Sub.2/2002/SR.24). A number of the members of the Sub-Commission went on record strongly disagreeing with the US/UK views.

When L.2 (the Alfonso Martinez) draft was called up for vote, M. Alfonso Martinez said that he could not accept Ms. Hampson’s proposed amendments and recommended a voice vote at that point on L.2. The Chair (an American) however, said that the issue would be taken up later.(See the Summary record at E/CN.4/Sub.2/2001/SR. 25). While there was no explanation for this, the delay was assumed to be so that the US would have time to “lobby” the members to vote for the Hampson amendments. However, when the Sub-Commission did take up the issue, the Sub-Commission as a whole rejected the Hampson amendments (see the Summary Record: E/CN.4/Sub.2/2001/SR.27) and adopted L.2, which became Sub-Commission Decision 2001/36. In brief, the Sub-Commission re-iterated that DU weapons, along with fuel air bombs, cluster bombs, chemical, biological and bacteriological weapons, are “incompatible” with existing law and appointed Justice Sik Yuen to prepare the working paper originally assigned to Mme Forero Ucros.

Throughout 2001 and up to the 2002 session of the Commission on Human Rights Justice Sik Yuen collected documentation, studied all the reports and information sent to him, and worked on the report. However, he was up for re-election to the Sub-Commission in 2002 at the Commission on Human Rights. The United States decided that it had to ensure that Justice Sik Yuen would not be re-elected, hoping that as a person no longer on the Sub-Commission, Justice Sik Yuen would not present a working paper. At the Commission, the US, aided by the UK, carried out an overtly insidious campaign against Justice Sik Yuen. I am certain that large-scale “debt-reduction” agreements and serious arm-twisting augmented this. The result was that Justice Sik Yuen was not re-elected.

To the disappointment of the US and the UK, Justice Sik Yuen presented his paper (U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/2002/38) at the 2002 session even though he had been voted off the Sub-Commission. Predictably, Ms. Hampson (UK) was quite critical of the paper, but the vast majority of the Sub-Commission members were very pleased with it. In fact, the Sub-Commission made a rarely used and highly complimentary decision to ask Justice Sik Yuen to prepare a second “up-dated” working paper to be submitted to the Sub-Commission at its 2003 session. In retaliation, the US and UK orchestrated a maneuver at the 2003 session of the Commission on Human Rights to deny the Sub-Commission the authority to ask a former member to continue work on a topic already begun as a “working paper.” In spite of this, it was too late to take away the Sub-Commission’s prior approval of an “updated” report, and Justice Sik Yuen showed that he could not be “embarrassed” away from the work. He prepared and submitted the updated paper to Sub-Commission at its 2003 session. (U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/2003/35).

Predictably, Ms. Hampson of the UK was highly critical of this paper, and in completely unfair ways. For example, she criticized the lack of reference to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) when the ICRC had not made any statements about DU and there was nothing to report. Further, she questioned his lack of analysis under human rights law, when that issue was addressed in his earlier report. Certain DU activists emailed me comments about the report, which they felt did not have enough about possible radiological weapons use in Afghanistan, but when I replied with my explanation they indicated satisfaction with the report.8

Because of the Commission decision to forbid assignments to former members the Sub-Commission could not ask Sik Yuen to do any more. However, we decided that what needed to be said regarding the legal arguments about DU weaponry had already been set out in his two reports, votes and comments of the Sub-Commission members, in my Memorandum and numerous NGO written statements, statements and written statements of other UN NGO’s, and other sources. Ms. Hampson, meanwhile, was trying to be assigned a further DU paper but the other members rejected this -- in part because she was from the UK and would likely try to undermine the legal status of DU weapons, in part because they saw through her unfair critique and in part because she had been assigned other work that she did not do. So the reports stand with Sub-Commission approval, and are, of course, part of the UN record and the work of both the Sub-Commission and the Commission. Governments are considered to be “on notice” of the illegality of DU.

In his first report, Justice Sik Yuen, sets out all the basic instruments of human rights and humanitarian law relevant to analysis of weaponry, sets out his formula for the weapons tests, and evaluates each of the listed weapons. While his analysis of this body of law and his formula of the “test” for weapons is worded a bit differently than mine, it largely parallels mine and leads to the same, obvious conclusion that DU weaponry is illegal. His “updated report” summarizes the first report and the Sub-Commission debate on it and provides new information regarding DU (such as its use in Iraq), some of the other weapons, and introduces “directed energy weapons” or “DEW’s.

Why is DU weaponry already illegal?9

A weapon is made illegal two ways: (1) by adoption of a specific treaty banning it; and (2) because it may not be used without violating the existing law and customs of war. A weapon made illegal only because there is a specific treaty banning it is only illegal for countries that ratify such a treaty. A weapon that is illegal by operation of existing law is illegal for all countries. This is true even if there is also a treaty on this weapon and a country has not ratified that treaty. As there is no specific treaty banning depleted uranium weapons, its illegality must be established the second way.

The laws and customs of war (humanitarian law) includes all treaties governing military operations, weapons and protection of victims of war as well as all customary international law on these subjects.10 In other words, in evaluating whether a particular weapon is legal or illegal when there is not a specific treaty, the whole of humanitarian law must be consulted.11

There are four rules derived from the whole of humanitarian law regarding weapons:

(1) Weapons may only be used in the legal field of battle, defined as legal military targets of the enemy in the war. Weapons may not have an adverse effect off the legal field of battle. (The "territorial" test).

(2) Weapons can only be used for the duration of an armed conflict. A weapon that is used or continues to act after the war is over violates this criterion. (The "temporal" test).12

(3) Weapons may not be unduly inhumane. (The "humaneness" test). The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 use the terms “unnecessary suffering” and
”superfluous injury” for this concept.13

(4) Weapons may not have an unduly negative effect on the natural environment. (The "environmental" test).

DU weaponry fails all four tests. (1) It cannot be "contained" to legal fields of battle and thus fails the territorial test. Instead the DU is air-born far a-field of legal targets to illegal (civilian) targets: hospitals, schools, civilian dwellings and even neighboring countries with which the user is not at war. (2) It cannot be “turned off” when the war is over. Instead, DU weaponry continues to act after hostilities are over and thus fail the temporal test. Even with rigorous clean-up of war zones, the air-born particles have a half life of billions of years and have potential to keep killing and injuring former combatants and non-combatants long after the war is over. (3) It is inhumane and thus fails the humaneness test. DU weaponry is inhumane because of how it can kill -- by cancer, kidney disease, etc. -- and long after the hostilities are over when the killing must stop. DU is inhumane because it can cause birth (genetic) defects such as cranial facial anomalies, missing limbs, grossly deformed and non-viable infants and the like, thus effecting children who may never be a military target and who are born after the war is over. The tetragenic nature of DU weapons and the possible burdening of the gene pool of future generations raise the possibility that the use of DU weaponry is genocide. (4) It cannot be used without unduly damaging the natural environment and thus fails the environment test. Damage to the natural environment includes contamination of water and agricultural land necessary for the subsistence of the civilian population far beyond the lifetime of that population. Clean up is an inexact science and, in any case, extremely expensive -- far beyond the ability of a poor country to pay for.

One of the more useful provisions of treaty-based humanitarian law is the "Martens Clause" to the Hague Convention of 1907 that is repeated in subsequent humanitarian law treaties. The Marten's Clause provides that in situations where there is not a specific treaty provision (which is the case with DU), the international community is nonetheless bound by "the rules of the principles of the law of nations, as they result from the usages established among civilized peoples, from the laws of humanity and the dictates of the public conscience."14 There is a huge anti-DU international effort from a wide array of groups representing every facet of civil society. The existence of the anti-DU network is legally relevant to the finding that DU is illegal, and buttresses arguments that use of DU weaponry is a war crime or crime against humanity and may play a decisive role in stopping proliferation of these weapons.15

How bad is DU weaponry?

There is a certain amount of controversy among scientists/medical researchers and developers and users of DU weaponry about exactly what DU does and how bad is it. Predictably, the users of DU claim DU weapons have no “bad” effects that would ban them, while scientific/medical researchers present a wide array of consequences that alone and together ban DU weapons from military use.16 However, “what it does” and “how bad is it” are scientific issues, not legal ones. Even so, the members of the UN Sub-Commission as well as other international law specialists that have looked into what is known about DU consider that even under outdated risk analysis and using the most conservative of possible negative consequences DU weapons are bad enough to be considered banned.

A complete understanding of the effects of DU on the human body or the natural environment will probably never be reached. Even so, efforts by independent and impartial scientists/medical researchers should be made in this area as the more is known about D

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