Updated: 02-Apr-2001 NATO Information

26 March 2001

Depleted Uranium Munitions

Comments of the International Committee of the Red Cross

For some time the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been closely fol-lowing the debate surrounding munitions containing depleted uranium. Questions such as the possible effects on health of depleted uranium, precautions to be taken by ICRC staff and by the local population and the application of basic norms of international humanitarian law to munitions containing depleted uranium received particular attention.

Possible effects on health of the use of depleted uranium munitions

The ICRC has examined numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies which address questions related to possible exposure scenarios and possible health effects of depleted uranium on combatants and civilians. The ICRC has also taken note of the findings of the post-conflict environmental assessment mission on depleted uranium recently undertaken in Kosovo by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

In May 2000 the ICRC invited personnel working for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in western Kosovo to provide urine samples which were subsequently analyzed to determine the concentration of uranium. Since uranium is naturally present in the environment, a small amount of uranium is expected to be found in urine. Results of the 32 personnel who agreed to provide urine specimens revealed normal levels of uranium, and thus do not provide any evidence of increased uranium exposure among this group.

Currently available scientific information provides evidence that the increase in levels of ura-nium is marginal in areas where depleted uranium munitions have been used, except at the points of impact of depleted uranium penetrators. Nevertheless, the ICRC welcomes the ad-ditional studies which are being carried out by various international organizations, in par-ticular field studies in Kosovo and other regions where munitions containing depleted ura-nium have been used. Hopefully, these studies will not only concentrate on international staff, but will also include the local population and children in particular.

Advice to ICRC staff and the local population

Given the nature of its work in conflict zones, the ICRC takes the security and health of its personnel very seriously. Security and Health units at ICRC headquarters in Geneva strive specifically to ensure the best possible safety and health conditions for ICRC field staff. Per-sonnel working in areas where depleted uranium munitions may have been used are provided with verbal and written briefings on depleted uranium. A briefing paper advises staff to avoid sites where depleted uranium munitions may have been used and to refrain from collecting any form of military debris. Staff are also encouraged to share these instructions with others, including the resident population. Along with the obligatory medical checkups provided to all ICRC personnel before and after a mission, both expatriate and local staff have access to medical advice and support at all times.

As part of its programme to warn the population about the dangers of unexploded ordnance and landmines left in Kosovo, ICRC instructors have also been advised on how to respond to questions about depleted uranium during public sessions.

According to the recently published UNEP report, the points of concentrated contamination of depleted uranium are localized. The ICRC welcomes the recommendations presented in that report and hopes that they will be implemented by relevant authorities as rapidly as pos-sible. This would not only ensure optimal protection for the civilian population from possible depleted uranium exposure, but would also allow the population to regain access to previ-ously contaminated agricultural land and houses. Finally, the ICRC notes with interest that the UNEP report encourages further scientific work to be carried out to reduce the scientific uncertainties which remain in assessments of the environmental impact of depleted uranium.

Legality of munitions containing depleted uranium under international humanitarian law

According to international humanitarian law - and an explicit wording appears in Article 36 of Protocol I additional to the Geneva Conventions, which is binding on 157 States - States are required to ensure that any new weapon, means or method of warfare does not contravene existing rules of international law. These rules prohibit weapons, means or methods of war-fare of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering, which have indiscrimi-nate effects or which cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environ-ment. The ICRC strongly urges all States which study, develop, acquire or adopt munitions containing depleted uranium to carry out such legal reviews if they have not already done so. The ICRC would welcome an exchange of views and information on these reviews. Within alliances or groups of States, it seems particularly important that appropriate legal review me-canisms are established on weapons, means or methods of warfare which may be used by such alliances or groups of States or that an exchange of information on national legal re-views takes place.