Ministry of Defence accused of trying to "manage the public and political debate" on depleted uranium

The UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) has been accused of employing "an aggressive public relations strategy" for over 30 years in an attempt to "manage the public and ministerial perception" of depleted uranium weapons.

The Campaign Against Depleted Uranium (CADU) argues in a recent report, Managing Acceptability, that despite the MoD's awareness in the early 1970s of the "intrinsic public unacceptability" of depleted uranium weapons, and a lack of research into their potential impact on health and the environment, their perceived military effectiveness led to consistent attempts "to manage the public and political debate& a process which continues to this day". [1]

On Thursday, CADU will publicly launch the report and lead a debate on the implications of the MoD's strategy toward depleted uranium (DU) for "controversial new technologies such as armed drones and autonomous robots," questioning whether the MoD uses the justification of defence to avoid wider public accountability. [2]

Nearly four decades of "managing acceptability"

Depleted uranium (or "nuclear waste") is chemically toxic and radioactive, but its high density means it is seen to provide a significant military advantage when used in armour-piercing projectiles. [3]

UK military scientists began to research and develop DU weapons between the 1960s and 1980s. They were made aware of health concerns, but according to CADU an assessment was put off "until after DU's military utility was assessed. When a perceived advantage became apparent during trials between 1975-and 1976, MoD staff focused on managing the concerns around DU rather than assessing the risk they posed to civilians and personnel."

Depleted uranium munitions have been deployed by both UK and US military forces - the only countries known to have used them operationally - in the Gulf War, Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Accompanying each of these conflicts has been increasing concern over the potentially detrimental effects of DU on people and environment.

Scrutiny over its use during the invasion and occupation of Iraq led the MoD to claim they held a "moral obligation" for post-conflict clean-up operations, although their efforts - removing eight military vehicles, an undisclosed amount of unburied DU fragments and the provision of generic warning information to local populations - are dismissed by CADU as "a token gesture", providing "a façade" that allowed the MoD to "maintain an air of respectability and political support for the controversial weapon" as part of its long-term attempts at "managing acceptability".

A change in strategy

Following the conflict in Iraq, international pressure from civil society organisations and politicians for a ban on the use of DU increased with three resolutions from the UN General Assembly in 2007, 2008, and 2010; four from the European Parliament (the first of which was issued in 2001); one resolution from the Latin American parliament in 2009; and domestic bans in Costa Rica and Belgium, in 2011 and 2007 respectively. [4]

The MoD began further research into DU, although only one of twelve research areas focused on the substance's affect on people's health. Nevertheless, the findings made clear that gaps in knowledge existed that should have been addressed prior to operational use. This has led to preliminary research into less toxic alternatives.

According to CADU, "this shift was a tacit acceptance that radioactive and chemically toxic conventional weapons are unacceptable," although the MoD maintains that DU represents a "minimal health risk." [5] A UN report from 2008, meanwhile, argues that there is a "substantial body of radiobiological evidence that overwhelmingly points to DU as a very hazardous substance." [6]

The MoD states that munitions "will remain part of our arsenal for the foreseeable future because we have a duty to provide our troops with the best available equipment with which to protect them and succeed in conflict." [7]

A "footprint of metal"

Recent research suggests that alongside depleted uranium, other types of "the best available equipment" can also have serious health implications beyond the immediate risks caused by bombs and bullets.

Research in Iraq has revealed serious medical problems caused by various types of weaponry. The Independent has reported a "staggering rise in birth defects among Iraqi children conceived in the aftermath of the war" with defects linked to "increased exposure to metals released by bombs and bullets over the past two decades." [8]

During Operation Phantom Fury in 2004 the US military devastated the city of Fallujah, afterwards admitting to the use of highly-controversial white phosphorus alongside conventional weaponry, although the force "never admitted to using depleted uranium".

Between 2007 and 2010 in Fallujah "more than half of all babies surveyed were born with a birth defect." Research undertaken before Operation Phantom Fury gave a figure closer to one in ten. Before the year 2000, less than 2 per cent of babies were born with a defect. Levels of lead in the hair of children born in Fallujah "were five times higher in the hair of children with birth defects than in other children; mercury levels were six times higher." [9]

The findings point to the devastating impact that the chemical components of modern munitions can have upon people living in areas subjected to military attacks, with the research team planning further investigation into depleted uranium. Dr Savabieasfahani noted her intention to "analyse the children's samples for the presence of depleted uranium once funds have been raised."

A "democratic deficit"

CADU's report argues that the MoD's continued public relations strategy shows that "DU munitions are intrinsically unacceptable to the British public," and that their use "clearly runs counter to our domestic environmental and health protection norms."

Despite this, "the MoD remains largely unaccountable, both to parliamentary and civil society scrutiny."

The UK's use of drones has come in for similar criticism. Perceived by the government to provide significant military advantages, campaigners such as the Drone Campaign Network argue that questions over their use - such as whether they make attacks more likely and less accurate - "need to be debated openly and honestly, requiring careful analysis and judgment based on evidence."

"Unfortunately, that evidence is being kept under wraps," the Network goes on to argue. "While it may be necessary to keep some information secret, we do not believe it is appropriate or legitimate to refuse to disclose any and all information about the circumstances of the use of Reapers [a drone manufactured by General Atomics] over the past four years. There is, at the very least, a sense that public discussion is being stifled." [10]

Given similar concerns have been raised over the use of depleted uranium, drones and other military tactics and technologies, CADU argues that "it is crucial that the UK's current approach to military necessity versus humanitarian harm is more closely scrutinised by civil society and parliamentarians." [11]

CADU, 'Managing Acceptability: UK policy on depleted uranium weapons', October 2012
[2] CADU, 'Upcoming events'
International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons, 'Overview'
UN General Assembly resolutions: 2007, 2008, 2010; European Parliament resolutions: 2001, 2003, 2006, 2008; report on the Latin American parliament's resolution; the Belgian law; and a report on the ban in Costa Rica
Ministry of Defence, 'Depleted uranium and health'
Ian Fairlie, 'The health hazards of depleted uranium', UN Institute for Disarmament Research, 2008, p.12
Ministry of Defence, 'Depleted Uranium (DU)'
Sarah Morrison, 'Iraq records huge rise in birth defects', The Independent, 14 October 2012
[9] Ibid.
[10] Drone Campaign Network, 'End the secrecy'
[11] 'CADU report launch - Managing Acceptability: The democratic deficit in defence policy and arms control'

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