Updated: 22-Aug-2001 NATO Speeches

10 January 2001

Transcript of Press Conference

by Secretary General, Lord Robertson

Mark Laity: Thank you very much ladies and gentlemen,
Could I ask you first of all, turn off your mobile phones please. I think you are all here to hear the Secretary General - so, let's hear him. Sorry we are late. There have been some very interesting discussions and the Secretary General of NATO, Lord Robertson will now talk about what Ministers, what Councillors have agreed.

Secretary General: Thank you. Good afternoon ladies and Gentlemen,

This is a very important day for NATO. Earlier this morning the Foreign Minister of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Mr. Goran Svilanovic came here today to discuss matters of common concern in NATO HQ. I think a year ago, the prospect of A Yugoslav Foreign Minister coming to NATO HQ would have been regarded as a dangerous fantasy. Today it was a reality and an important reality as well. The North Atlantic Council has just finished its first meeting of the year which included a specific discussion about Depleted Uranium munitions, and the way that NATO is moving forward on this issue.

First of all, I'd like to underline to you that this is not a new issue that we have just discovered. We have addressed it in the past in some detail and have offered well-researched reassurances before.

We are naturally all concerned about any suggestion that the use of depleted uranium could be causing harm to troops to their civilian back-up who all serve in Kosovo or in Bosnia, or indeed to the civilians who live there. Given these suggestions it is entirely legitimate that individual Governments should want to know more, and to get all the facts. And that is what NATO is committed to doing.

Let me now underline that there is no link of any kind that has been discovered between the very low levels of radiation found in depleted uranium and the contracting of leukaemia. And this conclusion has been supported in the past few weeks by bodies like the World Health Organisation and UN Environment Programme, with whom NATO has co-operated fully on this issue.

Mr. Pekka Haavisto, who headed the UN Environment Programme Study team in Kosovo, said this week: "It would not be possible for a soldier passing through an area hit by depleted uranium weapons in Kosovo to be suffering now from Leukaemia as a result".

Mr. Michael Repacholi, the spokesman for WHO, said this on Monday: I quote: "Based on our studies and the evidence we have, it is unlikely that soldiers in Kosovo ran a high risk of contracting leukaemia from exposure to radiation from depleted uranium."

I'd also like to point out that Canadian troops serving in both Bosnia-Herzegovina and in Kosovo have been medically screened - with no signs of effects from DU. Screening of German troops found the same and yesterday the Russian Ministry of Defence said that screening of their troops show no evidence of ill effects. Similar results have been obtained in other NATO and non-NATO contributing countries. And yesterday as well, Kosovo's Department of Health, part of Kosovo's UN-led administration, said that the number of leukaemia cases in the territory had been below average last year.

In a short time you'll be getting a more technical briefing on the subject of depleted uranium, its nature, its use and its possible impact on health.

But we are not, and we never will be, complacent. Governments have legitimately expressed concern. They want to be sure that they know all the facts. And the public and our troops also need to feel confident that they know all that there is to know.

That is why the North Atlantic Council agreed today on a robust action plan for reassurance.

We will produce more information on the use of DU munitions, particularly in Bosnia, where there is at the moment less detail on the exact sites where these munitions were used. This was at the specific request of the Italian Government, and we will do it.

We will assist the UN Environmental Programme if it were to send a team to Bosnia-Herzegovina to carry out a study similar to the one that they have completed in Kosovo.

In NATO itself, senior military medical experts will also be meeting next week to review the situation, and they will report immediately through the Military Committee to the North Atlantic Council.

In addition, NATO will act as a clearing house for information and co-operation on this issue. A lot of studies have already been completed, and now individual governments are doing their own screening programmes. All the information will be co-ordinated and the results shared.

To focus on the work that NATO is setting up today; we will be establishing a dedicated Committee on DU, involving not just NATO but other KFOR and SFOR contributing countries. We will include civilian organisations and authorities in the work that is being done. Many people are interested, and we want them all to be involved.

As in the past we will be as open as we possibly can. We have nothing to hide, but we have a lot to share.

This issue will remain a high priority on our agenda, but there will be a requirement for time and patience as the facts are gathered, and as the research is done.

We are confident that there is little risk from DU munitions - but we refuse to be complacent.

The existing medical consensus is clear. The hazard from depleted uranium is both very limited, and limited to very specific circumstances, but NATO is doing everything it can to ensure that relevant information is made publicly available. Existing concerns will be properly addressed, and the brave, dedicated people who are serving as our peacekeepers in the Balkans will be reassured that their safety and their health are our top priority.

Thank you very much.

Cantori RAI

Why do you refuse the Italian suspension?

Secretary General

Well, let me just make the position clear today. As I have already said there is no evidence currently available to suggest significant health risks from DU. And I would point out that we are not currently engaged in hostilities in the Balkans and munitions of this sort are therefore not being used.

Jonathan Marcus, BBC World

Two quick points, is NATO able to tell us whether the incidence of leukaemia in the countries that have raised the strongest concerns, notably Italy, in this particular age-group, is the incidence of leukaemia any different from what would be expected in the country in that age-group from standard epidemiological data? And the second point, whilst you insist there is no general health concern, you do accept that there is a hazard under very particular circumstances in and around the vehicles that may have been struck. Why is it that NATO has not embarked on a more rigorous clean-up process for vehicles that may have been hit and for recovering expended ammunition?

Secretary General

Well, one of the actions that we have taken today is to order a study into the practical and operational consideration to do with identifying all of the sites, protecting them and possibly clearing them up. We identified to the UN Environment Programme the 112 sites where we believe that these munitions had been used and further information on all of that will be given at the more technical briefing this afternoon. We do take that concern seriously. We are looking at it, but the particular hazard that is involved is a very particular and very narrow one, which was identified in the letter sent out by the Supreme HQ Allied Powers Europe last year, which made it clear that there was no general health hazard from DU munitions, but that under very specific circumstances caution should be used. That warning still remains, because we take safety at an enormously serious level and way above the level that would normally be expected in circumstances where there might be slight hazard.

Bill Drozdiak, Washington Post

Mr Secretary, you mentioned that since there are no hostilities going on in the Balkans now, the Allies see no reason to engage in a moratorium, but if your attempt is to reassure public opinion why indeed if there are no hostilities, what would be the cost to NATO to announce a temporary suspension of depleted uranium munitions in their arsenals, to remove them from their arsenals temporarily until the investigations are completed?

Secretary General

Well, since there are no hostilities they are not being used and I don't think I need to say any more than that.

Antonio Esteves Martins, POA.TV.

Secretary General, at the beginning of the week a German newspaper published a document that was supposed to inform NATO military and member states about the precautions to be taken when the troops were sent on the ground in Kosovo, dated July 1999. My question is, is it a real document which we have seen in the papers, and were all member states, all military people from NATO of the member states informed of this document?

Secretary General

The answer to your second question is yes, they all were. The answer to your first question is yes it was a real document. There was an awareness that as part of the air campaign that had been conducted against a lot of military targets and against a lot of armoured vehicles, some of these depleted uranium shells had been used. These are very small shells, but in very particular circumstances, usually inside the vehicles that had been attacked, there might be a hazard, and all troop-contributing countries were warned of that or non-governmental organisations were warned about that, and they were asked that returning refugees were also warned about it as well, but it was a very particular, possible hazard that would involve being close to or inside the particular vehicles that had been attacked by the particular shells that were being used at that time.

Mia Doornaert, De Standaard (Belgium)

Mr Secretary General, for years we have seen very serious scientific studies that there is no link to be seen between the DU weapons and leukaemia or other illnesses. At the same time the public apparently remains extremely distrustful and is not willing to believe this apparently. Have you discussed means of bridging of this what I would call credibility or emotional gap between the scientific community and the rest of the population?

Secretary General

Well, we have spent a lot of time addressing that very specific point. And the point you make is right. There is a body of scientific evidence that leads one to a very clear and convincing conclusion, and documents will be presented to you today from a wide variety of sources to back that up, but where there is a problem of perception we must address it. And that is why we have today produced this reassurance action plan that will collate all of the information that we have and disseminate it. That will involve co-operation with the UN Environment Programme whose study - very intensive study with which we co-operated and for which help they thanked us - their report will be published in early March and will inform the public as well. But what I can do is to say that as the Secretary General of the Alliance I would not agree to the use of munitions, - I know when I was a national Minister of Defence or a Secretary General, - if I believed they involved a hazard to the people who were using them; the troops on the ground or to the civilians in the area and we've got to get that message over. That is why I have quite deliberately used the authority of the United Nations Environment Programme's Director, the former Minister of the Environment of Finland when he said that there was no connection, and the World Health Organisation's recommendations this week. I really have to put with some feeling and with some passion that their views should be taken into account. Even if people are not willing to agree with the politicians, if they are not willing to accept the view of the NATO Secretary General, listen to those who have done the scientific studies, listen yourself this afternoon to the presenters who will show their evidence to you as well. Listen and transmit that to a public, which I do not believe, deserves to have been as excited in this way as they should have been. We would not be using munitions if we knew they involved some health hazard to the people on the ground or to the people who are our brave and dedicated peace-keepers.

Doug Hamilton, Reuters

Secretary General, NATO, the Allies have known since the Gulf War that there is a political downside to these weapons, no matter whether there is a real health effect or not. Haven't they now been exposed as a political liability and are the Allies going to be thinking about finding replacement munitions so that the next time there is a crisis where this sort of weapon has to be used, it will be something different?

Secretary General:

No. What we have to do is base our analysis on the facts. We cannot possibly go on the basis of perception, or people's views about the one word 'uranium'. When we are talking about something that is depleted uranium, that is 40% less potent than the normal uranium that you and I are breathing in the atmosphere, as we are at this press conference today, then we have to base what we are doing on the facts. This is a proven technology, tested widely, independently tested, invaluable on the battlefield. What we were engaged in 1999 was an exercise to save thousands of lives, to prevent millions of refugees and to safeguard democracy in the Balkans. We used the weapons we believed were right and appropriate and were safe. And therefore we must only go on the basis of scientific advice and on the facts and not be swayed by perceptions from time to time.

Marley Simons of the New York Times

Sir, you have just pledged more NATO help to Mr. Haarvisto of the United Nations Environment Programme, but the same Mr. Haarvisto only two days ago, lamented that it took more than a year for NATO to release the data that they needed in order to conduct their studies and to collect their samples. My question is, why did it take more than a year and the intervention of the UN Secretary General for this data to be released? What was there to hide, or why would it take so long?

Secretary General

Well, there was nothing to hide. There was a bureaucratic delay involved in the system, which we all regret and the information was given. We were somewhat busy, it has to be said, in the aftermath of a particularly vicious and violent campaign of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. We were learning lessons of the campaign that had taken place. But we did respond and the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, whom I spoke to this week, in Nairobi, made it clear his gratitude for the information we have provided and accepted with gratitude my offer of further information when it can be established. So we will be looking out the information for Bosnia-Herzegovina but after five years that is not going to be an easy job to do but we will do it and we will do it as quickly as we possibly can. We are interested in transparency and in openness and in reassurance and that is what today's Council was focussed on - on reassuring our troops, the civilians who back up our troops, their families and also the civilians of the area, that there is nothing to fear from this particular type of munition, and that NATO has nothing to hide.

Il Sole 24 Ore: Question:

Very simple question. Why the warnings that were given in Kosovo on the use of ammunition with depleted uranium weren't given when they were used in Bosnia? Why the same type of warnings weren't given at that time?

Secretary General

Well, I can't answer that question. I wasn't in this position 5 years ago. All I can tell you is that there is perhaps a greater public awareness of concerns about munitions with depleted uranium last year and the warnings were therefore issued about the particular circumstances that applied at that particular time, in order that people were aware that there might conceivably in these particular circumstances be a hazard. What we want to now know is whether there is any wider hazard beyond that and that will come with the UN report. But Mr. Haarvista has already made it absolutely clear in relation to leukaemia what his view is about that. You know nobody should take from this, from the statement from this press conference or from today's North Atlantic Council that there is any complacency on this issue at all. If there are concerns they must be addressed. If there are worries and there are suspicions then we can counter them with facts in order that people understand that what we are doing is right and that when we are acting we act with the interests of our troops and the civilians very much in mind and that is why we are moving to be more open with the information to focus more on the facts and less on the emotions, but to make sure that people realise that this is not something on the basis of scientific facts that is likely to cause a hazard for our troops in this area, other than the very particular narrow circumstances identified in the warning that was put out, and a warning which takes account of higher than normal standards of care that we apply in NATO and in the NATO countries to the responsibilities to our troops.

Mark Laity: Thank you very much ladies and gentlemen. There will be another briefing - the 3 o'clock briefing we have in half an hour's time - say three twenty.

Thank you very much.

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