UN Documents on Depleted Uranium

The UN Documents on Depleted Uranium is a collection of four documents that attempt to determine the effect that depleted uranium weapons have on human beings, in terms of both health and standard of living, and, as a result, their legality under international human rights laws and humanitarian laws.  For clarification, depleted uranium weapons are a relatively recent development in military technology, with the first known usage in warfare occurring in Iraq during the Gulf War of the 1990’s.  Depleted uranium is extremely tough and dense and is used to create armor piercing bullets, as well as armor and military tank parts.  It is radioactive, but not nearly as much as pure uranium or plutonium.[1] Depleted Uranium is then recycled to make weapons that deliver “a type of radiation … that destroys life and the environment in the area in which it is used for generations to come” (United Nations General Assembly, 2000).The four UN documents concerning depleted uranium are the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities’ resolution 1996/16, titled International peace and security as an essential condition for the enjoyment of human rights, the report from the UN Secretary-General that the previous resolution requested, the same sub-commission’s resolution 1997/36 with the same title as the previous resolution, and a working paper by Y.K.J. Yeung Sik Yuen, requested by resolutions 1997/36 and 2001/36 and titled Human rights and weapons of mass destruction, or with indiscriminate effect, or of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering.  The documents illustrate that the use of depleted uranium weapons does in fact violate previously existing international human rights and humanitarian laws.

 

Goal: The goal of the documents and the inquiries begun by the original resolution 1996/16 is to conduct further research on depleted uranium, determine its potential and actualized results, and, in doing so, determine if weapons making use of depleted uranium violate international law and then, having determined this, call for disarmament from this type of weapon or the cessation of the use of this type of weapon.

 

Relevant Clauses

 

International peace and security as an essential condition for the enjoyment of human rights, above all the right to life (Sub-Commission resolution 1996/16[2]

 

Concerned at all the alleged use of weapons of mass indiscriminate destruction both against members of the armed forces and against civilian populations, resulting in death, misery and disability,

Concerned also at repeated reports on the long-term consequences of the use of such weapons upon human life and health and upon the environment,

Concerned further that the physical effects on the environment, the debris from the use of such weapons, either alone or in combination, and abandoned contaminated equipment constitute a serious danger to life,

Convinced that the production, sale and use of such weapons are incompatible with international human rights and humanitarian law,

Believing that continued efforts must be undertaken to sensitive public opinion to the inhuman and indiscriminate effects of such weapons and to the need for their complete elimination,

Convinced that the production, sale and use of such weapons are incompatible with the promotion and maintenance of international peace and security,

1. Urges all States to be guided in their national policies by the need to curb the production and the spread of weapons of mass destruction or with indiscriminate effect, in particular nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, fuel-air bombs, napalm, cluster bombs, biological weaponry and weaponry containing depleted uranium;

 

2. Requests the Secretary-General:

a) To collect information from Governments, the competent United Nations bodies and agencies and non-governmental organizations on the use of nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, fuel-air bombs, napalm, cluster bombs, biological weaponry and weaponry containing depleted uranium, on their consequential and cumulative effects, and on the danger they represent to life, physical security and other human rights;

b) To submit a report on the information gathered to the Sub-Commission at its forty-ninth session, together with any recommendations and views which he may have received on effective ways and means of eliminating such weapons;

 

International Peace and Security as an Essential Condition for the Enjoyment of Human Rights, Above All the Right to Life (Report by the Secretary-General submitted pursuant to Sub-Commission resolution 1996/16[3]

 

III. Comments Provided by Non-Governmental Organizations

International Educational Development, Inc.

23. The use of most weapons listed in resolution 1996/16 would violate the rules of humanitarian law.  Nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, biological weaponry and weaponry containing depleted uranium (hereinafter referred to as DU) are all fundamentally indiscriminate and uncontainable, have severe residual effects long after the war is over, cause undue suffering and harm the environment.  For example, DU may cause deaths and serious illnesses, disabilities and birth defects long after its war-time use in weapons.  It remains in the soil , water supply and atmosphere for generations, rendering water supplies and agricultural land unusable […]

25. It is also patently clear that all the listed weapons except fuel-air and cluster bombs necessarily violate human rights, especially the rights to life, health, food, shelter and work.  The right to food in human rights law […] is closely linked to the right to life as an aspect of the right to subsistence.  Many of the listed weapons destroy land that could otherwise be used for agricultural purposes.  In the case of the use of weapons containing DU, the land will never be useful for agricultural use-the half-life of DU is 4.5 billion years.  The war-time use of depleted uranium also is likely to contaminate food stored in facilities that are not nuclear-proof-and few such facilities are […]

26. The right to safe drinking water, which arises from the right to food, the right to life and the right to health, is likely to be even more seriously violated.  Again using DU as an example, contaminants from DU weapons can enter the water supply (groundwater, lakes and streams, reservoirs, etc.) far away from the location where the weapons were actually used I combat.  Given prevailing winds and rainfall patterns, it is scientifically impossible to limit DU effects to even one country, much less to the legitimate field of battle.

27. Many jobs and forms of employment could be instantly destroyed, with a severe effect on the right to work.  For example, countries facing massive short- and long-term lay-offs in agricultural jobs due to contamination or other destruction of agricultural lands may be unable to retool with sufficient speed to prevent serious economic and social consequences.  Countries not participating in armed hostilities may also be affected, if, for example, their agricultural lands were affected by depleted uranium, chemical or biological weapons.

29. The most obvious risk of violation of human rights by the development, production and storage of nuclear (including depleted uranium), biological, bacteriological or chemical weapons is because of the almost certain contamination of people, animals, plants, ground, air and water.  At this point there is insufficient technology to prevent eventual contamination […]

31. […] The development or threat of development of weaponry of the type listed in resolution 1996/16 fundamentally endangers the right to peace […]

35. Victims of weapons that violate humanitarian and human rights law have a right to compensation deriving from both humanitarian and human rights law […]

 

International peace and security as an essential condition for the enjoyment of human rights, above all the right to life (Sub-Commission resolution 1997/36)[4]

 

Recalling further its resolution 1996/16 of 29 August 1996, in which it requested the Secretary-General to submit a report on information gathered on the use of nuclear, weapons, chemical weapons, fuel-air bombs, napalm, cluster bombs, biological weaponry and weaponry containing depleted uranium and their consequential and cumulative effects and the danger they represent to life, physical security and other human rights,

Concerned at the use of weapons of mass or indiscriminate destruction or of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering, both against members of the armed forces and against civilian populations, resulting in death, pain, misery and disability,

Concerned also at repeated reports of the long-term consequences of the use of such weapons on human life and health,

Convinced that the use or threat of use of weapons of mass or indiscriminate destruction and, in certain circumstances, the production and sale of such weapons are incompatible with international law, as well as the promotion and maintenance of international peace and security,

Believing further that continued efforts must be undertaken to sensitize public opinion to the inhuman and indiscriminate effects of all such weapons and to the need for their complete elimination.

Having considered the report of the Secretary-General and the many serious questions raised therein,

1. Urges all States to be guided in their national policies by the need to cub the testing, the production and the spread of weapons of mass destruction, or with indiscriminate effect, or of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering;

2. Decides to authorize Ms. Clemencia Forero Ucros to prepare, without financial implications, a working paper, in the context of human rights and humanitarian norms, assessing the utility, scope and structure of a study on weapons of mass destruction or with indiscriminate effect, or of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary.

 

Human rights and weapons of mass destruction, or with indiscriminate effect, or with indiscriminate effect, or of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering (Working paper submitted by YKJ Yeung Sik Yuen in accordance with Sub-Commission resolution 2001/36)[5]

 

In the light of humanitarian law from all sources, the author concludes that weapons are to be considered banned if their use:

a) has indiscriminate effects (no distinction between civilians and belligerents);

b) is out of proportion with the pursuit of legitimate military objectives;

c) adversely affects the environment in a widespread, long-term and severe manner;

d) causes superfluous injury and unnecessary suffering

Weapons

8. Weapons containing depleted uranium are but a specific type of weapon which has been included within the compass of this working paper because of the novelty of these weapons also because the effects of their use are such that they would equally infringe both humanitarian law and basic human rights […]

II. The Weapons

D. Weapons containing depleted uranium

                3. Legal compliance of weapons containing DU as a new weapon

133. […]  But since weapons containing DU are relatively new weapons no treaty exists yet to regulate, limit or prohibit its use.  The legality or illegality of DU weapons must therefore be tested by recourse to the general rules governing the use of weapons under humanitarian and human rights law […]

                5. Ill effects of DU

137. […] DU is said to be a highly toxic and radioactive heavymetal with pyrophoric (flammable) properties: it bursts into flames upon impact.  The burning uranium then spreads into the atmosphere, creating a small-scale fallout of aerosolised uranium particles that can be inhaled or ingested from the air or by contact with contaminated materials and sites.  These particles can travel anywhere that dust goes.       

138. Aerosol is reported to be much more hazardous than naturally occurring uranium particles in soil or food, because it is easily breathed into the lungs.  It will stay there for some three to four years delivering radiation doses to the tissues since it is not very soluble in water.

141.  According to United States Government documents, short-term effects of high doses of DU can result in death, while long-term effects of low doses have been implicated in cancer.

142. Although DU is less radioactive than U or plutonium, there is no threshold level of radiation below which an exposed person is safe from radiation damage.  Besides,

DU also remains an extremely harmful substance with the chemically toxic properties of many heavy metals.

 


[1]Y.K.J. Yeung Sik Yuen Minorities  (2002). Human rights and weapons of mass destruction, or with indiscriminate effect, or of a nature to cause superfluus injury or unnecessary suffering. Retrieved October 17, 2013, from United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights: http://www.unhchr.ch/Huridocda/Huridoca.nsf/0/22481f4157de6274c1256c00004c29bb/$FILE/G0214167.pdf

[2]United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities  (1996). International peace and security as an essential condition for the enjoyment of human rights, above all the right to life, Sub-Commission resolution 1996/16. Retrieved October 17, 2013, from United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights: http://www.unhchr.ch/Huridocda/Huridoca.nsf/0811fcbd0b9f6bd58025667300306dea/887c730868a70a758025665700548a00

[3]United Nations Secretary General  (1997). International peace and security as an essential condition for the enjoyment of human rights, above all the right to life, Report by the Secretary-General submitted pursuant to Sub-Commission resolution 1996/16. Retrieved October 17, 2013, from Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Human Rights Documents: http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G97/128/91/PDF/G9712891.pdf?OpenElement

[4]United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities  (1997). International peace and security as an essential condition for the enjoyment of human rights, above all the right to life, Sub-Commission resolution 1997/36. Retrieved October 17, 2013, from United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights: http://www.unhchr.ch/Huridocda/Huridoca.nsf/0/21a4acb0f1b289ed80256633004ce147

[5] See number 1.

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