|Updated: 26-Jan-2001||NATO Speeches|
24 Jan. 2001
by NATO Acting Spokesman Mark Laity and Statement by Ambassador Daniel Speckhard, Chairman Ad Hoc Committee on Depleted Uranium
Mark Laity: First of all, the usual plea: could you turn the mobiles off for the duration of the briefing, then you can talk to your heart's content afterwards. Thank you for coming. This is a briefing conducted by myself - I am Mark Laity, the NATO Acting Spokesman, and on my left, by Ambassador Dan Speckhard. Dan is the Chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee on Depleted Uranium. This was the committee formed in the wake of the North Atlantic Council meeting's decision to ensure maximum transparency on this issue. What we are going to do is, we are going to start off with a briefing from Dan and then we'll take questions, which will be directed through me.
I know you'd be disappointed if this wasn't here. That's a depleted uranium round. The top part is depleted uranium and it's real, apart from the explosive.
Amb. Speckhard: Thank you Mark. Good afternoon. As you know, in response to public concerns and questions, the North Atlantic Council on January 10th agreed to a robust plan for sharing information and assuring the health of peacekeepers involved in NATO-led operations. One element of that plan was to establish the Ad Hoc Committee on Depleted Uranium, which the Secretary General has asked me to chair. The mandate of the group is to serve as a forum for the exchange of information on the possible health risks associated with the use of depleted uranium munitions and act as a clearinghouse on this issue among allies, non-NATO SFOR and KFOR contributors, concerned international organisations and other parties, including local civil authorities. The efforts of this group represent the desire of NATO and the Secretary General to ensure maximum transparency and co-ordination with all interested nations to ensure there is no health risk to our troops or civilians in the Balkans as a result of depleted uranium.
The Committee, composed of representatives of approximately 50 nations and 5 international organisations, has met twice so far -- on January 16th and January 23rd. Based on the discussions and copious amounts of information shared by nations this group has found that:
So, based on the data today, no link has been established between depleted uranium and any forms of cancer.
Of course, when it comes to the health of the men and women serving as peacekeepers, there is no room for complacency and further analysis and research is being conducted by nations and will be shared in the Ad Hoc Committee in future meetings. These concerns extend, as well, to the health and wellbeing of the populations in the areas of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo where DU ammunitions have been used.
More than a dozen nations have been testing their soldiers serving, or having returned from the Balkans and have not found any traces of depleted uranium to date. A number of nations have sent teams to the region to analyse the environment for health risks in areas of operations. To date, based on preliminary findings, there has been no indication of increased level of radioactivity at any of the sites tested.
To facilitate the research, NATO has provided all representatives of the Ad Hoc Committee with maps and co-ordinates, when available, of the locations of the use of depleted uranium munitions. Representatives have also received a briefing from the NATO Chair of the Committee of Chiefs of Military Medical Services on the work they have done to date, and they also have received a briefing from the International Military Staff at NATO on the SFOR and KFOR policies on handling, recovery, storage and disposal of spent depleted uranium munitions, and finally they have received a briefing by SHAPE representatives on the use of depleted uranium munitions in the Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo operations.
Let me stress again what I said at the outset: the purpose of this group is to provide maximum transparency and openness on this issue. Nations are being encouraged to share as much information as possible in order to address any DU-related concerns that they may have. As the Secretary General has said, we have everything to share, and nothing to hide.
The Ad Hoc Committee is meeting on a weekly basis and will continue to meet as needed to ensure all relevant information is being shared by all concerned nations and international organisations.
I would be pleased to take your questions.
Mark Laity: Thanks, Dan. Before you start, let me just point out a couple of things to you. Very soon on the NATO website and in hard copy form, we'll put up the list of the latest information on the sites of all the air strikes. We're also putting on the website maps of both Bosnia and Kosovo which have got the sites of where the air strikes were.You can see behind me one of the maps now.
So, these maps, which are the same maps as were supplied to individual nations, NATO and SFOR contributors, non governmental organisations, will be available on the website. We are endeavouring to provide a hard copy in A3 format but that will take at least a couple of hours so bear with us. There will be a hard copy form, I'm not quite sure when. But this map will be on the website imminently. All of the relevant information about the site, number of rounds fired where known and the coordinates, is also going to be on the website and that is actually happening now, so you'll be able to get that information once this briefing is over. In terms of file size the map is going to be rather large, but it's there, it's available, it's open, it's transparent in a manner of speaking, therefore that's the maximum information we have. We will attempt to update it if new information comes in.
With regard to Bosnia, they're trying to define down a little more the exact sites of some of the air strikes which were against moving targets, such as tanks. But I can repeat again, as I have before, that all of the air strikes involving DU munitions in Bosnia were either within the 20km exclusion zone around Sarajevo or Han Pijeak, which is somewhat further out and was the Serbian military complex which housed the headquarters of the Bosnian Serb army. There were no strikes in any other area, so anyway that material is on the website and it's again part of what we're trying to do in the realm of transparency and openness, so with that I'm very happy to take your questions.
Question: Since right now there doesn't seem to be anything new, I want to ask you what are the investigations that are under way right now, like the one that is conducted by the (inaudible) mission that was sent to Kosovo. I think their results will come in at the end of February. What other investigations are under way, from which you expect important information?
Amb. Speckhard: Well, in our meetings there have been more than a dozen countries which are involved in investigations. Some of those countries have said that NATO is free to share their information, others are keeping it to themselves. I'm sure that's for purposes not of keeping it from the public but for purposes of having them announce it themselves rather than having it announced by NATO. So I can't go through the list of countries but I can say that there's a significant number of countries and that's what we're talking about in this committee finding out what they're studying. They can talk to each other, they can find out what sites are being visited and compare notes on those sites. There are also a significant number of countries that are testing their soldiers and we are sharing information on that. A number of countries are sharing information on pathologies of soldiers who have become sick since serving in the Balkans, to see whether there is any interest in terms of comparing notes on different types of sicknesses and so forth. The group is focussed on depleted uranium I should add, but some of this information being shared is useful to medical authorities in other ways as well.
Mark Laity: If I can add, NATO's role is not to launch investigations, NATO is a clearing house for other people's studies and investigations. When you say what investigations there are, you are encompassing a rather broad area. The fact is that a very large number of nations have got multiple studies, in the sense that some of them are doing screening, some of them have sent people to take soil samples, air samples and other studies and most NATO members have actually got at least one kind of study or investigation of some kind. Some of them have been providing information which they've done before, Some of the nations, Finland for instance, had already conducted health studies, just as a generic measure to ensure the health of their soldiers. That information has now proved useful with regard to depleted uranium. The Portuguese have both been looking at their soldiers and sending people to investigate soil samples. So when you talk about the number of investigations, you're actually talking scores. If you added them all up it would be a very large number, but they're not NATO investigations. They are individual national investigations and added to that is the existing body of work. One of the things that has become increasingly evident is that this is, not surprisingly, an area where very few people have focussed very heavily. And therefore it's only now that they realise that there is a considerable body of work on natural and depleted uranium, expecially naturally occurring uranium. That information, which has been held in countries like the United States, where it's been an issue for some time, is now being shared with other countries where it's never been an issue before. So when you talk about studies and investigations you actually open up an enormous area and that is what we're working on and NATO if you like is at the centre of this web. The information comes to us and we shoot it out again to all those people who are interested, via written form or via our website or any other method which people find useful.
Amb. Speckhard: If I can just add to that, yesterday one country that was happy to have its information shared publicly was Greece, highlighting a study that they had just been working on in terms of their training sites and firing ranges that had used depleted uranium and they had found on testing the soil there was no increase above background radiation levels. And they had found no health risks associated with their training grounds. So that's the kind of information that's coming out in addition to the tests and investigations that are occurring in theatre.
Mark Laity: And these are not just NATO's. Croatia has supplied a paper on war related illnesses after their own conflicts and so on. So there's an enormous amount of work going on out there and too long to itemize, frankly.
Question: Can you tell us again which is the figure of countries which are participating in the Committee and which are the international organisations and, secondly, I remember that Lord Robertson, when he announced the Committee, he said that the Committee was going to be open to NGOs. When are they going to take part there, in the Committee?
Amb. Speckhard: The Ad Hoc Committee has 50 countries, which basically include NATO countries, non NATO contributing troop nations, both in present and past in the SFOR and KFOR operations. It includes New Zealand, which has sent some troops as part of another contingent. It also includes Bosnia and Herzegovina and includes a representative of UNMIK on behalf of Kosovo, and has as well a representative invited from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to this meeting. As well, there are five organisations which are represented. We have the World Health Organisation, we have the United Nations Environment Programme, we have the OSCE, we have the European Union represented by the Presidency Sweden, but also they have brought with them a European Union Commission member and we have a representative of the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina. And I should say the European Commission and the European Union have been sharing information with NATO, as we have been sharing with them. One of our experts has been invited to a meeting the commission is having next week and we'll send one of our medical experts - I think Colonel Lam who you've met before on this podium.
In terms of NGOs, NGOs will be invited in terms of when the agenda item lends itself to additional value for their being present, so it's not something at which they'll come to every meeting, but depending on the meeting and the subject, nature, of the meeting and agenda item that we could invite NGOs as well.
Mark Laity: We'll do the list, you can see it's a very extensive list. Yesterday, when we held the meeting in the largest meeting room we have, there weren't enough seats at the table for everyone to sit around. This is a very open committee. Next question.
Question: The WHO are taking more soil samples in Kosovo and I think UNEP is still analyzing and possibly also taking more samples. Do you expect that these samples will show some minor traces of uranium 236 and plutonium or would that be an unusual find?
Mark Laity: With regard to that, it is quite possible, it is hypothetical
at the moment, because we are not predicting it, but, as I said in a statement
released last week, it is entirely possible that in depleted uranium there
will be trace elements found of other contaminants, uranium-236 and plutonium
Question: Is any country currently examining the urine and the blood among their soldiers to investigate on plutonium and U-236?
Mark Laity: Sorry, I did not quite catch that, sorry.
Question: Is any country currently making analysis on the blood and urine of their soldiers who have been reported having cancer or illness? Are they testing the blood and urine to trace possibly U-236 and plutonium?
Mark Laity: Quite a number of countries have done blood and urine tests. I honestly don't know about the sensitivities of these tests and whether they need specific tests or not . So, I don't think your PhD in science is arrived yet...
Amb. Speckhard: No, but they are testing for heavy metals and they are also testing, as well, for the general health of the soldiers to determine whether there are any traces of depleted uranium. So the notion, if you think plutonium were part of the depleted uranium or something like that, you would assume that you would have found some depleted uranium as well as the effects of the plutonium. So from what we have seen today and the evidence that has been provided, there are countries looking at blood samples and urine samples of soldiers and they have found no indication of anything unusual, or that is out of the normal for the results of the tests that would be occuring in their normal military populations in their countries.
Question: Can you tell us who is representing FRY, Yugoslavia, in the work? And if it is from the beginning of their work, and if the representative of FRY and Bosnia agreed completely with the assessment of the Ad-Hoc Committee that there is not any kind of linkage between the use of munition with depleted uranium and leukaemia, cancer, and other illness?
Amb. Speckhard: Two things, one is for the FRY representative. They have indicated that they will be sending a representative, but they have not yet appeared at yesterday's meeting. Yesterday's meeting was the first meeting at which they were invited and they were not able yesterday to get someone here. But we expect in future meetings that they will have someone.
Mark Laity: And their view - you asked what the nations think - we don't speak for nations.
Amb. Speckhard: What I would like to say about that question though, because I want to make sure it is understood: I am not here presenting the assessment of the Ad-Hoc Committee. We were not created to produce an assessment, we were created to exchange information and share our relevant knowledge and understanding of this issue with each other and what I am doing is reporting to you at this point in time. No information has been exchanged or shared by anybody of this group that indicates that there is a health problem associated with depleted uranium. So, what I am giving you is an update on where we are on that meeting. You shouldn't expect a final report or a formal document coming out of this group. It is just going to be an ongoing group to share information.
Mark Laity: We are not meant to come to a consensus at this group. We are meant to exchange information.
Question: On another subject, Kaliningrad, I would like to know why NATO didn't take any position concerning Kaliningrad. Is it not preoccupied about the information concerning the nuclear arms in this region?
Mark Laity: The topic of this press conference is the ad-hoc committee on depleted uranium. Full stop. You can come afterwards and we can talk about it but we are not spreading the topic at this press conference. So leave it for that, come afterwards, but this isn't the appropriate forum.
Question: May I ask you Mark, perhaps I lost the trace of this, as far as I remember, Lord Robertson invited the United Nations Environment Programme to go into Bosnia as they did in Kosovo. Did they already respond in any way, or did they already say they will go there or did they say they will not go?
Mark Laity: No, NATO didn't invite the United Nations Environment Programme to go. We indicated we would support them if they did. And my understanding is that they have been invited to go - I believe it was by the Italians - so they have been invited to go and we will support them fully in the same way as we supported them fully in Kosovo.
Amb. Speckhard: That's right, and I understand that they are planning on doing that.
Question: Can I just back up to the beginning of this whole thing. This all started, I think, because the Italians thought there was some relationship between soldiers of theirs that were getting ill and their serving in the Balkans, and from all the information that has been exchanged here, this is not true. That is what you were saying. So what was the information that they had that made them think this and has that information been rejected?
Mark Laity: I think the Italians have not said that there is a link, they said that they were concerned.
Question: But this came up though, right? Isn't this what launched the whole concern about this?
Mark Laity: The way it came up was that some people raised a concern and it is not just Italy. Let us not sort of point fingers in that sense but some nations have raised have concerns, some individuals in nations have raised concerns that leukaemia is linked to depleted uranium. This has been taken up by many people. Some of them have said this is a question they would like answered. And that includes governments. No government that I am aware of has said that there is a link. In fact I am sure none of them have said that. What they have said is that they have questions they want answered, and that is what this process is about. However, the existing evidence does indeed clearly point to the fact that there is not - according to independent scientific opinion - any proven or demonstrated link between leukaemia and depleted uranium munitions. And if that is the opinion you come to, then good. Because that is the opinion that we start from and that many other people have come from. And I think that one of the things that we have wanted to do in this whole process is to show by our openness and transparency that, if you look at the evidence, then the conclusion you come to is pretty clear. At the same time, we want to make sure that there is no suggestion that we are complacent or uncaring. People are worried, people are concerned. Therefore a lot of nations have very responsibly said : "Let's make sure". So there are two things, where do we start from if there is no proven link of any kind? That's why these were used. Depleted uranium wouldn't have been used in the first place if people thought it caused health risks. So the starting point is that there is no proven link. But if people are worried, if people are asking for questions to be answered, then democratic societies try to answer them. And I think if the media is coming around to the opinion that perhaps this was all overblown, then maybe the media should ask itself the question about whether perhaps things got a bit carried away. But I have not heard any government, including Italy, say there is a link. They said they have questions, and they want answers and we are answering them through this committee and a variety of other bodies.
Amb. Speckhard: If I could just add in the case of Italy they, like any good government, are worried and responsible for the health of its troops and armed forces in all aspects. So they are interested in making sure that they understand, where possible, whether there is anything in any way responsible, related with the work of their troops, for the ill-health problems that some of their troops have. But what they are finding, what everybody is finding, is that no-one has more incidents of health problems in most troops serving in the Balkans than in their regular armed forces and that there is no reason, at this point in time, based on the evidence that has been shared to-date, to suggest that there is any link of serving in the Balkans on a peacekeeping mission and an increased incidence in ill-health. What Italy has done is shared with the other nations, the pathologies of those soldiers who are sick as a result of this, who have serious illnesses such as leukaemia and cancer and they are sharing that both in a group that I chair, as well as in the committee of Chiefs of Medical Services. And they are asking other nations to see if there is anything in this data or anything similar in their data that would lend any light on perhaps the causes of those illnesses because causes so far have nothing to do with anything related to Balkans work and are probably more like illnesses in the regular society, due to many different factors not related to peacekeeping.
Mark Laity: It is worth making the point that thus far not only has there been no demonstrated link that leukaemia is more than amongst comparable population. There hasn't been any demonstrated link that there are any health problems at all that are greater that one would expect. But we are not complacent, that's why people are carrying out investigations, screenings and studies.
Question: The Spanish Minister of Defence sent a letter I think last Thursday to Lord Robertson, asking for more information on the plutonium findings. Is he planning to reply or has he already replied? How is the procedure in these cases?
Mark Laity: He is certainly planning to reply. I mean the letters from the Spanish Minister and the letter from the Portuguese Prime Minister are regarded as extremely high priority. Now, to be honest, I am not sure if the letter has gone off or whether it is about to. It was tasked to be replied to as a matter of urgency and I am sorry I don't know whether it has gone off but it is certainly being replied to and we have sought further information on the use of plutonium. I have talked about the 600 page report. We have been very active in that and we have been receiving answers to those questions. So, yes it will be replied to. I am sorry, I just don't know whether it has gone back yet. I just cannot answer that side of your question, but it will be and it will go back the minute we have a satisfactory answer.
Question: Could the Ad-Hoc Committee spread its exchange of information to other possible factors and not only on DU?
Amb. Speckhard: Well the Committee has limited its mandate to the issue of DU, but as a matter of policy we accept information and we'll exchange it, provided we share it amongst the whole group. But the purpose of this group is to focus on DU which has been the interest expressed by governments today.
Mark Laity: the title of the Committee speaks for itself.
Question: I would like to ask some short questions. First of all, how many meetings of the Ad-Hoc committee have already taken place, how many more are planned and how frequently will this body convene and will NATO - this specific Ad-Hoc Committee - will they provide information with the same openness and transparency to the International Criminal Tribunal if this body were to investigate into DU ammunitions?
Amb. Speckhard: We have met twice so far. Once on January 16th and once on January 23rd, we will meet again next Tuesday and are meeting on a weekly basis for now. That may in the future be done a little less frequently. One of the things we hope to be able to do is sort of institutionalize this in way that doesn't require lots of meetings. But in fact information could be exchanged at any point in time which is what we are doing now. If someone sends us a piece of information in writing, we can get that to all of the 55 participants quickly. So we will keep meeting as needed and as frequently as needed. For now, that is weekly.
Mark Laity: On the matter of DU and ICTY, as far as we are concerned, it doesn't arise. DU is not illegal. It is a legal weapon of war. End of story. We used it, it's legal.
Question: Ambassador, since we are not talking about a generic weapon, we are talking about US stock here. And since it took rather a long time for the fact to emerge that there was this transuranic contamination by plutonium, do you think the other countries involved now are satisfied that there are no more surprises awaiting them from the United States or are they going to have to read through 600 pages of science just to make sure?
Amb. Speckhard: I think that you have to ask the nations that question. From what I have seen so far, everyone has expressed satisfaction the way the Ad-Hoc group is working and I haven't heard anyone complain about that and I think they view this group as a mechanism to make sure there are no surprises and people get the information and that it is widely distributed well beyond the NATO colleagues. So I think the system we have set in place should help alleviate any concerns to that respect and, to be honest with you on the issue of surprises, I think that as Mark said earlier about the issue of transuranics and so forth, I think there was no intention to withhold or keep back anything there. I think the results of those studies all show that there is no increase in health hazards from the transuranics, so the information was not particularly important or powerful in the context of the issue of health hazards or health risks.
Question: I have three small questions. Could you give a few more details about the (inaudible) of the people who live in the areas where these weapons were used, who is looking into that right now, what investigations are going on in that respect and when do you expect results? Secondly, plutonium, there are scientists who say that no matter how small the quantity of plutonium is, it is always dangerous for your health. What do your experts say about that, and thirdly, even after all those findings that you talk about here yourself, the German Minister of Defence, Scharping, says, maintains his view that these weapons should be forbidden. Mr. Speaker, how does NATO see this view, how do you value that?
Mark Laity: Regards the situation in Kosovo and Bosnia, I think
if you have been following the issue, you will be seeing that the hazard
from depleted uranium is very low level, very limited, very localized,
so there is not a general health hazard to the Bosnian or Kosovar population
of any kind. When we have done studies in that, it is shown that the level
of radio-activity is very low and the level of hazard from heavy metals,
which is more significant, is also very low. So I think that the idea
of saying: "what are we doing to protect the population?" misses
the point that the threat to them is very, very low already because it
is extremely limited and very, very localized indeed. Now, when you come
to what NATO does - NATO is part of the international community. Our primary
purpose is protecting the security of the population. We are in the act
of providing information to non-governmental organizations, other members
of the international community, the UN etc. to ensure that the have the
appropriate advice. And indeed we have always been open to any request
on that, but that is primarily something which is spread amongst the whole
international community, not just NATO alone, but I think the main point
is that they are not under threat. When there have been stories about
particular areas, investigations have been made. Then the threat has disappeared,
vaporized. Second point, plutonium, it's not as you say "our scientists".
We do not have any scientists. The scientists we use are independent scientists.
They are the ones who make the judgments and their judgment is that it's
all about concentration. There is no such thing as "no matter how
small it is, it hurts". What they are talking about is concentration
and the evidence that they have provided is that insufficiently small
concentrations, trace elements, do not add to the existing low-level health
hazard. So I do not know who your scientists are, but I know what our
scientists, which are independent scientists that we don't employ, that
we don't pay, but who are just scientists, say the trace elements do not
Amb. Speckhard: On the issue of the local populations you are interested in, you should please go to the UN as well to seek more information, but my understanding is UNMIK in Kosovo has been working with WHO on the issue of the health of the local population, that in fact even in this particular case they have opened a voluntary testing centre, or are about to, that local populations can have tests made on the issue of whether there is heavy metals that they have ingested. And so as well as they are looking at death certificates and health records in Kosovo to determine whether there has been any increase in leukaemia and today they have not found any. So while I am not the person to ask for the details on this, I would refer you to the UN because there are things going on in the region that are very much focussed on the local populations and their health and what it is finding as well is that it's not related to depleted uranium any issues here and there aren't actually increases in Kosovo of leukaemia incidents.
Question: Just about the plutonium again, do you have information about what is the minimal concentration that can be dangerous for the human life and what is the concentration that has been found in DU?
Mark Laity: I think these figures are fairly meaningless. There was a spokesman who said - I think last night - that there was 1/23rd of a quadrillion of concentration, I think this is meaningless. These are figures which to non-scientific people don't mean anything. What we are relying on is, what does the figure mean? And what they have discovered is trace elements which by their estimation do not cause harm. They do not add to the existing low level hazard. Now that is the figure that actually matters. I think we ban the one millionth, one quadrillionth, etc. It does not mean anything. What it is is that the scientists have said that the parts per billion, trillion, whatever, are so small that they do not add to existing low-level health hazard. That is the statement that matters. Figures are meaningless.
Question: As for the Italian soldiers who died of cancer and leukaemia, could I have information about their deployment or activities when they were deployed in Kosovo or Bosnia-Herzegovina. How long were they deployed and what were their activities and did they approach tanks with the depleted uranium?
Mark Laity: That is stuff that the Italians are doing. And they are mounting their own investigation to precisely find that out. But I think it would be quite important to realize how close, for how long you would have to be to be harmed according to the current scientific evidence. You know that the evidence would suggest that to ingest enough to cause yourself harm, or to inhale enough to cause yourself harm, would be very, very hard to do. So if you have a wrecked tank, then it would just not be enough to walk by once. This is part of the Italian government's study and I think I would take the implied question that if they were within a 100 yards of a wrecked tank, does this open them to harm? No it doesn't. It is very, very hard to be close enough for long enough to this material to cause yourself any harm and in particular to cause yourself leukaemia. There is no demonstrated link of any kind.