In depth

The interview

Interview with Doug Weir

The co-ordinator of the international network against depleted uranium talks to us about various aspects related to depleted uranium, and the organisations and institutions working on this problem.

1. Why was the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW) established?

The campaigns against depleted uranium (DU) in Europe, the USA and Japan have gone from strength to strength and formed networks since the late 1990s, when concern over the possible impact of uranium weapons began. By 2003, a great deal of progress had been made in the debates on the best way of dealing with this issue, and the founder members of the Coalition were beginning to see that the international campaign to ban landmines had to establish a very important precedent. This was the trigger for the launch of an international coalition to campaign for a treaty prohibiting the use of uranium in all non-nuclear weapons. Since then, this stance has been justified by the success of the Cluster Munition Coalition and by our own achievements.

2. What have been the main successes so far?

The ICBUW has done a great deal of work in the international arena. This has led to two resolutions by the United Nations General Assembly, which were both approved by large majorities. The second of these texts was approved in 2008; it highlighted serious health concerns about uranium weapons, and called on the UNO agencies to update their studies on the potential impact of uranium on health. It was approved with 141 states voting in favour and 5 against.

We have also worked closely with members of the European Parliament. The Parliament has approved several resolutions on uranium weapons; of those, the most thorough and wide-ranging was the one passed in May 2008. The text called for a moratorium covering the entire EU, and for more studies and projects raising awareness of the risks, and was supported by 94% of the European MPs. A resolution based on this text has recently been presented to the Latin American Parliament, which approved it.

Elsewhere, our activists have had considerable success in national arenas, especially in Belgium, where a law prohibiting uranium weapons came into force on 21 June this year. We anticipate that Costa Rica will soon follow Belgium's example. We have also received support from EUROMIL - the umbrella group for European military personnel associations, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and recently, from the Norwegian government, which has started to finance part of our research work.
However, the most important thing is that these successes have contributed to placing uranium weapons on the international disarmament agenda and to making a Convention on uranium weapons a realistic possibility.

3. What lessons have been learnt which will be useful in future campaigns?

For me, there are two main lessons; first, you should never underestimate what you can achieve on a limited budget and second, that precision and transparency of figures must be the main priority in any campaign. A third could be that you should always stay focused on your message. The area we work in is very complex, and it is too easy to get distracted in scientific and technical debates. It is also very easy to forget our message, which is quite simple - it is immoral to pollute the environment with toxic and radioactive waste, when you are well aware of its potential to harm human and environmental health.

4. What are the main challenges for the future?

In September 2010, the UN General Assembly will again debate the issue of uranium weapons. The result of the debate will depend on the position taken by the World Health Organisation (WHO). So far their position on uranium weapons has been political rather than scientific. This is completely inconsistent with their responsibility to protect public health and as you would expect, many governments and even NATO hide behind the WHO's position. Until the WHO accepts that depleted uranium is carcinogenic - which is supported by an enormous and growing body of peer-reviewed data and also by the IARC, its own agency specialising in cancer — progress will be difficult.

Another challenge is extending the precautionary principle to uranium weapons. Obviously, it is impossible to analyse uranium using humans, but tests with cells and animals show that it can cause a great deal of harm. Nevertheless, some governments are unwilling to take action until we can present them with a direct causal link between exposure and damage to health. But demanding that is equivalent to not understanding the nature of the threat; as with asbestos, environmental pollution by uranium ammunition is a long-term threat to the health of the civilian population. This threat may take many years to become apparent - we simply cannot wait that long or wait for these weapons to be used again. If uranium was a cosmetic, a medicine or a consumer product, its toxicity levels would have been enough to prohibit it but just because it is a weapon, the governments say that these criteria don't apply to it.

5. Would you like to say anything else to our readers?

So far, Spain's international response to the issue of uranium weapons has been disappointing. In the two votes at the UN, it has adopted a pro-NATO position and abstained. In 2008, while Austria, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Switzerland and the Netherlands were among the 141 states that expressed their concern and demanded more research, Spain (and Portugal) fell into line with Turkey and Russia, the main exporters of uranium, and some pro-NATO states that are candidates for EU membership, and abstained on this issue.

We currently believe that this situation is unlikely to change without a forceful response from civil society. For the ICBUW, it will be a pleasure to support all organisations, interested in promoting the Spanish government's acceptance of the position of both the European Parliament and of many of its European neighbours. We would extend a warm welcome to any NGO wanting to join our Coalition. Visit for more information