Back to Main page Depleted Uranium Hazard
The Guardian, London, Friday, June 18, 1999
 Poison in the air: The environmental costs
 of the Kosovo conflict must be exposed
 Mikhail Gorbachev
 Now that the air strikes against Yugoslavia have stopped, the world 
 community will have to assess the damage and draw lessons from the events of these 
 past  months. We should not allow this misguided and unwarranted action to be 
 followed by the wrong conclusions. Faced with the plight of the Kosovans, 
 the  destruction of much of the essential infrastructure in the rest of 
 Yugoslavia  and the tremendous damage to international relations, triumphant statements 
 sound hollow. What is really needed now is responsible analysis.
 As president of Green Cross International, a non-government environmental 
 organisation that was among the first to sound the alarm about the 
 environmental consequences of Nato's military action, I feel duty bound to 
 continue the discussion. A region-wide environmental catastrophe may have 
 been avoided, though only time and an unbiased assessment will tell. Some 
 might now ask: "Was the threat exaggerated? Could nature be much more 
 resilient to the impact of war than we thought?" Such complacency is 
 Let us recall the effects of the hostilities that followed Saddam Hussein's 
 aggression against  Kuwait. Data cited at an international conference on the 
 environmental consequences of war held in Washington in June 1998 indicate 
 that these consequences are long-term. Green Cross experts estimate that 40% 
 of Kuwait's strategic water resources have been irreversibly polluted with 
 oil. Alarming are the reports of health problems among US and British 
 soldiers who fought in that war - problems that now also affect their 
 children. The environmental and medical consequences of the war in Iraq 
 itself are, for reasons that are well known, not widely covered by the media 
 or studied by scientists.
 Military action against Yugoslavia included use of weapons containing 
 depleted uranium. Such weapons burn at high temperatures, producing 
 poisonous clouds of uranium oxide that dissolve in the pulmonary and bronchial fluids. 
 Anyone within the radius of 300 meters from the epicentre of the explosion 
 inhales large amounts of such particles. Although radiation levels produced 
 by the external source are quite low, the internal radiation source damages 
 various types of cells in the human body, destroys chromosomes and affects 
 the reproductive system.
 We are told that depleted uranium components are harmless and that DU 
 weapons are therefore a legitimate means of warfare; many military and political 
 leaders believed - and some seem to believe even now - that nuclear weapons 
 too are quite "conventional" albeit a more powerful kind of weaponry.
 I am calling for a comprehensive analysis of the environmental situation in 
 Yugoslavia and other countries in the region and in the Danube basin. This 
 should be a priority. But we must do more than that. That military conflicts 
 in our time can cause both a human and an environmental catastrophe makes 
 the task of preventing them even more important. Prevention must be foremost in 
 our thinking and our actions. But, if hostilities break out despite all our 
 efforts, they must be constrained by certain legal limits. Such constraints 
 have been laid down by the Geneva conventions and their protocols. They 
 should be supplemented by provisions to limit the environmental damage 
 caused by warfare.
 Specifically, I believe that strikes against certain industries and 
 infrastructure, such as nuclear power stations and some chemical and 
 petrochemical plants, must be prohibited. We should prohibit weapons whose 
 use may have particularly dangerous, long-term environmental and medical 
 consequences. In my view, weapons containing depleted uranium should be 
 among the first to be banned.
 The time has come to convene a second conference on the environmental 
 consequences of war in order to discuss issues of this kind. The conference 
 should also address the need for an emergency fund to finance measures to 
 deal with the aftermath of environmental catastrophes. Recent events 
 underscore the urgency of this proposal.
 Environmentalists, political leaders and public opinion should now 
 demonstrate that we can learn the right lessons from the tragedies of the 
 twentieth century. The human drama and the drama of nature should be of 
 equal concern to us. They should sound a call to responsible action.
 The author was president of the Soviet Union 1991-2.