June 7th, 20005. Parliament Member's Journal
"I went to Hiroshima in the summer of
1983. I saw the Peace Memorial Museum and
listened to survivor testimony. I learned
quite a lot." Instead of the usual greeting,
Benn told me about his visit to Hiroshima
as he guided me to his office in the basement.
A former journalist, he was first elected in 1950, at the age of 25. In November 2000, he will have been in Parliament for half a century. Benn was one of the very few members who opposed the Gulf War, and he speaks out aggressively regarding the problems caused by the depleted uranium (DU) weapons used by the UK and the US. He also demands assistance for Britain's veterans who are suffering from various illnesses.
"I have been involved with DU munitions
for twenty years. Actually..." He gets
up from his chair and heads for a bookshelf
in the corner of the room. He reaches for
one of the many volumes of the journal he
has been keeping since he was fifteen. The
journal is now up to about 40 million words,
with each year of his life recorded in a
separate neatly bound black volume.
Benn was Minister of Energy and Industry when the US requested permission to store DU weapons in Britain and also proposed that we develop it ourselves and test-fire it. "Look, that incident is described right here." Benn had taken out his journal for 1979 and turned to "Monday, January 22."
There was a discussion among the seven Chief Cabinet members at that time. It was claimed that depleted uranium cores would penetrate tank armor and would turn into fireballs inside the tanks and completely destroy them. Germany (West Germany) already had this weapon, but the government was not prepared to admit it to their own people. The Soviet Union and the US also had it. Thus, it was decided that England should develop it as well. DU radiation was said to be "as dangerous as the radiation from a luminous watch."
With the rest of the Cabinet pushing for Britain to develop and introduce this weapon, Benn alone stubbornly resisted. "The public won't understand it. They will think we are moving across the frontier from conventional into nuclear warfare-which we would be. I am absolutely opposed to it." But the decision went against him. "I lost it," he noted regretfully.
"The destruction inflicted by DU weapons goes beyond the moment of impact. They don't explode like atomic or hydrogen bombs, but they still cause the enemy and our own people to suffer for decades, even taking their lives. DU weapons are cruel and indiscriminate, and their use is a crime against humanity."
He and other Labour Party representatives
have formally stated their opinion on numerous
occasions, but the former Conservative Party,
and now even the present Labor administration,
keep up the refrain. "DU munitions are
conventional weapons that produce no after-effects."
"Why doesn't the government tell the truth? Well, if they admit the health effects of those weapons, they will have to pay huge compensation to their own soldiers, but there is more to it than that. Prime Minister Blair and the Defence Ministry are afraid that, were they to admit the problem without permission from the US government, the Americans will withdraw all nuclear weapons from Great Britain."
Britain may appear to have its own independent nuclear strategy, but is actually under US control. "We are a nuclear colony. All we can do is parrot whatever the Pentagon (US Defense Department) says is the official line, and that goes for DU as well."
Benn's uninhibited criticism of the government does not spare his own Labor Party. Looking back over his long career in Parliament, he insists, "Real political progress comes only when the power of concerned citizens comes together as a popular movement."
To that end, more people around the world must become aware of the hazards of DU. "I've been calling for nuclear abolition since before I got into Parliament. I will continue doing so, of course, but now I will call additionally for a ban on the manufacture and use of DU munitions."
Benn's efforts for peace will all undoubtedly be recorded in his remarkable journal.
Tony Benn: "I'll start using the Internet soon to get my ideas out." (London)
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