With the United Nations First Committee on Disarmament and International Security convening in New York this month, one point of debate will be the potential health risks of depleted uranium weapons in post-conflict zones. And rightly so: depleted uranium is a byproduct of nuclear enrichment processes used in armor-piercing incendiary projectiles to penetrate tanks, and correspondingly to harden armor against attack. Since the Gulf War, veterans groups, doctors and civil society groups have raised concerns about the possible health effects on humans of radioactive DU dust left in the environment. Now, A10 gunships are headed back to Iraq, a nation that has already absorbed 400,000kg of DU contamination, according to the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons. This month’s discussion at the UN follows a UNGA report released earlier this year, in which Iraq, not so surprisingly, joined a handful of other nations in calling for an outright ban of these weapons.
Early in my research for my new book ‘Lost’ Causes, I considered depleted uranium as an interesting case of agenda-vetting in the humanitarian disarmament NGO arena. A far-flung network of organizations has been lobbying for a ban since 2003, and language has been percolating in General Assembly First Committee resolutions since 2007, culminating most recently in the Secretary-General’s report on the topic this summer. In short, the issue is gaining momentum in non-binding “soft law.” But the DU issue has not been as prominent to date in disarmament circles of NGOs pushing treaty prohibitions on weapons in general, and major organizations like the International Committee for the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch have not prioritized the issue of DU on their formal agendas. Instead the most prominent issues on the NGO disarmament agenda since 2005 have included cluster munitions, small arms, autonomous weapons and, to a more limited degree, incendiary and explosive weapons. As this graph of NGO campaign affiliations from 2012 shows, organizations associated with the ICBUW are relatively disconnected from other disarmament campaigns, with more ties to the nuclear and environmental movements than to the humanitarian disarmament mainstream.*
In many respects, this is not at all surprising given the nature of the DU issue, which cuts across health, environment and arms control. My research has found that highly inter-sectional issues often have the hardest time finding a foothold in existing advocacy terrain. Also, elite advocacy NGOs gravitate for strategic reasons toward campaigns where they can a) combine testimonial and statistical evidence, and b) identify a clear causal link between the cause and effect of a humanitarian problem. Testimonial evidence is abundant here – much anecdotal evidence points to carcinogenic effects, including increased birth defects in areas exposed to DU. But generalizable scientific evidence is less so: few large-scale epidemiological studies have been carried out. “We know without a doubt that DU in humans is harmful and that contamination needs to be cleaned-up,” ICBUW Coordinator Doug Weir told me. “The main question is to what extent are civilians being exposed to it.”
Despite these obstacles, in recent years the ICBUW has made some noticeable strides in messaging and networking its issue in transnational civil society. Continue reading