Discounted casualties
July 11th, 2000
3. The Legal Perspective

Clear violation of humanitarian law
Deliberation by the UN Commission on human rights

Unlike nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, depleted uranium is a conventional weapon that can be used without violating international law.

Possessed by at least 17 countries

Claiming that radioactive DU weapons have no lasting effect on human bodies or the environment, the US and the UK tout its potency as an anti-tank projectile. Along with Russia and France, they produce and export it as a "conventional weapon."

Consequently, at least 17 countries, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Thailand, and Taiwan now possess DU munitions. All signs point to more countries purchasing DU weapons and eventually using them in conflicts and wars.

As US and UK defense establishment officials emphasize, no international treaty bans DU rounds themselves. However, a number of specialists point out that DU rounds are clearly illegal from the perspective of international humanitarian law.

One such specialist is Karen Parker (55) of San Francisco, a US lawyer who served for many years as a private citizen on the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. Parker's area of expertise is armed conflicts and human rights.

"There are two ways to ban a weapon. The first is to effect a special international treaty banning a specific weapon. The other is to seek a ban from the standpoint of not allowing weapons that violate established humanitarian law." Parker then gave four reasons why using DU rounds violates humanitarian law.

(1) Using a DU round generates minute particles that can migrate beyond the battleground to cause harm in neighboring areas or even in non-combatant countries. (Rule: The effects of using a weapon must be limited in territory to the actual field of combat.)

(2) The health damage that results from depleted uranium continues for some years after the war has ended and can even affect coming generations through congenital defects, etc. (Rule: Weapons must not continue to harm or kill after the war has ended.)

(3) Many non-combatants in the southern part of Iraq, especially innocent children, are suffering from leukemia and other illnesses; radiation and toxic chemicals are affecting the next generation as well. (Rule: Weapons must not be unduly inhumane.)

(4) The use of DU rounds contaminates the ground, the atmosphere, and water over large areas and negatively impacts the ecology of plants, etc. (Rule: Weapons must not cause long-lasting, wide-spread environmental damage.)

Only the US opposes the resolution

Parker said, "The general principle of humanitarianism in war has been established by various international laws, such as the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, the Geneva Conventions for the Protection of War Victims of 1925 and 1949, and the Nuremburg Principle of 1945. In 1996, the International Court of Justice handed down an advisory opinion that 'The threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, in particular to the principle and rules of humanitarian law.' This development was highly significant in that it applied a moral constraint."

The Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy (LCNP), Human Rights Watch (HRW), and other major NGOs primarily based in the US are intensifying their efforts from the same viewpoint.

In 1996, Parker and others urged the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva to pass a resolution banning the use of DU weapons, nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons, cluster bombs and other such weapons. In August that year, the resolution passed the Discrimination Prevention Subcommittee with 15 in favor, one against, and 8 abstentions. The subcommittee sent the resolution to the UN Commission on Human Rights, which may now be sent to the UN General Assembly.

"The only commission member who opposed the resolution was an American. He was particularly opposed to including depleted uranium bombs," said Parker, who criticized her government's position. The UN Commission on Human Rights raised the issue again in the spring of 2000. As general awareness of DU munitions grows, concern is intensifying in various countries.

Growing importance of international public opinion

Giving speeches in various countries, Parker asks people to "stop thinking that we can't ban a given weapon without passing a law. Besides applying humanitarian law to war, if we broadly interpret the content in the UN Charter, the International Covenant on Human Rights, and other laws, we already have a number of international laws that will serve as a basis for banning DU weapons as well as weapons of mass destruction like nuclear bombs. More people need to know this."

The success of the movement to ban DU munitions, like that for nuclear weapons, depends on the force of international opinion.

Karen Parker: "If we make full use of humanitarian laws already accepted by the international community, we can build a more peaceful world,". (San Francisco, USA)

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