Iraq, DU and the applicability of peacetime norms during and after conflict

Posted by on Jun 25, 2014 in Blog, Health, Iraq, Munitions, Policy, UNEP | No Comments
Iraq, DU and the applicability of peacetime norms during and after conflict

A new report from PAX received widespread media coverage last week when it revealed, for the first time, a set of US target coordinates and information for some locations of depleted uranium (DU) strikes from the 2003 Iraq War. The report also sought to assess what the post-conflict response to widespread DU contamination and tonnes of military scrap would have looked like if civil radiation protection guidelines had been properly applied. As one of the TRWP’s principles is that conflict does not immediately remove the requirement to protect public and environmental health from pollutants, and that peacetime norms should inform civilian and environmental protection, this seems an interesting example to examine.

The coordinates published in Laid to Waste demonstrate that once again the military’s assurances that DU is only for use against armoured targets rarely bear close scrutiny. This had been noted previously following DU use in the Balkans and indeed has a pedigree dating back at least as far as 1978. During consideration of the ‘Inhumane Weapons Convention’, this exchange with the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office took place as they were busy plotting a Plan B should the question of DU’s acceptability arise. Surprisingly prescient, it sums up the value of military assurances relating to restrictions on the use of DU weapons:

“…if a proposal is made in the 1979 Weaponry Conference for a ban on the use of DU there might be scope for considering whether we should propose, as an alternative, restrictions on the uses to which such ammunition might be put… The difficulties of any such proposal in terms of verification are, of course, considerable.”

To which a Mr Judd of the FCO responded: “I am highly dubious as to whether any undertaking only to use ammunition of this kind against tanks would be worth the paper it is written on.”[1]

Radiation protection norms

The prevailing scientific consensus is that radiation is bad for you and that harm increases proportionately with dose. This Linear No-Threshold Dose (LBT) model underpins global radiation protection standards. There is ongoing debate over the uncertainties associated the effects of low-dose radiation, particularly inside the body, and this fits a wider narrative stretching back over nearly a century that has seen ‘safe’ exposure standards decrease as information on potential harm has increased.

Taken on its own, the model would be of little use in regulating practices that use radiation, such as medical imaging, for this reason the IAEA, WHO, ILO and ICRP developed the Basic Safety Standards. These are a pay-off between the societal benefits accrued from, for example, the medical use of X-rays and the need to protect health. They provide a range of ‘safe annual dose limits’ for the public, workers or responders to radiation emergencies. So far so good as the cost-benefit balance is fairly simple to determine, at least as far as medical uses are considered.

Alongside the dose calculations, standards and norms promoted by the IAEA and others also require that those wishing to use radiation accept various obligations, for example:

The prime responsibility for safety must rest with the person or organization responsible for facilities and activities that give rise to radiation risks.  

An effective legal and governmental framework for safety, including an independent regulatory body, must be established and sustained.

Facilities and activities that give rise to radiation risks must yield an overall benefit.

But when, as ICBUW has done, you analyse DU through this normative and globally accepted framework, serious questions emerge. If the prime responsibility for safety rests with DU users, why is there no obligation to clear contamination after conflict? How can the dispersal of DU into the environment be justified during conflict when it is clear that in almost all cases, the state affected will not have the capacity to effectively manage contamination? Finally, is there an overall benefit? Do all parties benefit equally, or are the benefits of DU use – be they perceived or actual – accrued solely by the militaries that use them?

When it comes to civilian health protection, should the safe dose from DU exposure be interpreted under that deemed acceptable for the public on the basis of the BSS system’s cost-benefit calculation? Or, if the benefits of use are not felt by those exposed, and if DU is not used or managed in accordance with the prevailing normative system underpinning the use of radiation, should the guidance from the LNT – that any exposure carries with it some risk – carry greater weight? Together these norms, which focus on the protection of human and environmental health, provide a useful means of judging the acceptability of practices likely to generate TRW.

LTW_scrapLaid to Waste found that workers in Iraq’s informal scrap metal trade were at particular risk of exposure to DU due to inadequate oversight and monitoring.

Transparency, capacity and responsibility

BSS aside, the report finds that guidelines for the management of low and intermediate level radioactive waste were not followed. This failure to adequately manage DU contamination scrap and target sites is largely a result of three interlinked factors common to environmental pollution in post-conflict settings and which are readily applicable to other cases of TRW.

A lack of transparency from the main polluter has hindered clean-up work; in this case the US even refused to share targeting data with UNEP to help facilitate their post-conflict assessment. The UK was more open but only fired a fraction of that used by the US. The lack of accurate records of work done on sites or the movement of contaminated scrap during the time of the Coalition Provisional Authority has also proved problematic.

While some capacity-building work was undertaken by UNEP to help strengthen Iraq’s Ministry of the Environment, this was limited. In this case capacity relates not only to technical expertise but also the resources necessary to identify sites, for their management and monitoring and for the movement and long-term safe storage of contaminated materials. Crucially, what is still lacking is a comprehensive effort to determine the extent of civilian exposure to DU in those groups most at risk.

On the question of responsibility, where does the balance lie between the polluter and the polluted in this case? Radiation protection norms would view the US and UK as the duty bearers, but human rights law would see this responsibility as shared with the Iraqi government, who also bear responsibility for the protection of their own people.

This case is an instructive example of why some kind of mechanism is required to reduce the generation of TRW, improve their post-conflict management and determine and respond to their impact. Any such mechanism could, and should, seek to resolve the linked issues of transparency, capacity and responsibility. It should also be guided by those civil health and environmental protection norms that are deemed necessary to protect human health and the environment from pollutants in peacetime. Seeking to distinguish between citizens and civilians in regulation or response seems a poor way to achieve improved civilian protection from TRW.

Doug Weir is the Project Manager at the TRWP and Coordinator of ICBUW.


1. ICBUW (2012) Precaution in Practice: challenging the acceptability of depleted uranium weapons. pp29 from: Wilberforce W.J.A. to Mr Moberly, (1978) PS/Mr Judd Depleted Uranium Ammunition, 16 Nov 1978, in Storage of depleted uranium ammunition for United States A-10 aircraft in the UK, FCO 46/1832, The UK National Archives (TNA).

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