Uranium weapons fallout part of our making
Australia is far from an innocent bystander
to the damage being done by
weapons that use depleted uranium, writes Helen Caldicott.
The evil legacy of the depleted uranium, or
DU, weapons used by the allied
forces in Iraq, Kuwait, Bosnia and Kosovo is causing a furore in Europe.
Seven Italian soldiers who served in the Balkans have died of leukemia,
while 30 are seriously ill, 12 with cancer. France, Portugal, Holland,
Belgium and Spain also have soldiers who are developing malignancies.
The British Government, facing an anguished
and angry outcry from its
military veterans, has finally and reluctantly agreed to study the issue.
The Pentagon, however, steadfastly maintains
that DU poses no threat to
Why should Australians care? Because these
DU munitions almost certainly
contained uranium mined in Australia.
DU is actually uranium 238. It is what is left
after the fissionable
element uranium 235 is extracted from the ore used as fuel for weapons and
About 700,000 tonnes of this seemingly useless
but hazardous radioactive
material had accumulated over the past half century throughout the United
States until the American military discovered that it was not so useless
Almost twice as dense as lead, it sliced through
the armour of tanks like a
hot knife through butter. Eureka: it was there and what's more it was free,
so DU bullets and shells would be cheap to make as well.
But uranium 238 has other properties. It is
pyrophoric, bursting into
flames when it hits a tank at great speed.
The fire oxidises the uranium, converting it
to tiny aerosolised particles
that can be inhaled into the small air passages of the lung where the
material often remains for many years.
As far back as 1943, scientists in the Manhattan
Project were postulating
that uranium could be used on the battlefield as an air and terrain
Inhaling it would cause "bronchial irritation"
and the acute radiation
effects could induce ulcers and perforations of the gut followed by death.
Because it is radioactive, uranium 238 can damage cells in the lung, bone,
kidney, and lymph glands, causing cancer in those organs as well as cancer
of the white blood cells, leukemia.
It is also a heavy metal and causes a kidney
disease called nephritis. It
is not surprising that Gulf War veterans are excreting uranium 238 in their
urine and semen.
Children in Iraq - where over a million pounds
of DU in spent shells and
aerosolised powder was left by the allies - are reported to have a higher
than normal incidence of malignancies and congenital malformations.
Similar reports are emerging from Bosnian and
Kosovo hospitals, while
studies of children of American veterans seem to show a higher than normal
incidence of congenital disease.
Because uranium 238 has a half-life of 4.5
billion years, and plutonium,
which is by orders of magnitude more carcinogenic than uranium, has a
shorter half life of only 240,400 years, Iraq, Kuwait, Bosnia and Kosovo
are now contaminated with carcinogenic radioactive elements forever.
And because the latent period of carcinogenes
- that is, the incubation
time for cancer - is two to 10 years for leukemia and 15 to 60 years for
solid cancer, it is almost certain that the reported malignancies in the
NATO troops and peacekeepers who served in the Balkans, and in the American
soldiers and their allies who served in the Gulf, as well as civilians who
live in these countries, are just the tip of the iceberg.
So what is the Australian connection? The Department
of Energy in the US
has just admitted that contaminated uranium reprocessed from military
reactors had been mixed in with the "pure" DU.
This contaminated uranium also contains traces
of plutonium and uranium
236, and probably neptunium and americium - elements which are actually
thousands of times more carcinogenic than the uranium 238.
These DU munitions almost certainly contain
Australian uranium because the
thousands of tonnes of ore we ship routinely to the US is enriched at the
Paducah Gaseous Diffusion plant in Paducah, Kentucky, the same plant where
the DU for weapons is sourced.
Thus the evil legacy of DU is partly Australia's.
When will we act to stop it?
Dr Helen Caldicott is a pediatrician and founder
of Our Common Future
Iraq: The Great Cover-Up
Monday 22nd January 2001
The New Statesman
Most victims of depleted uranium are not soldiers,
but civilians, many
of them children. John Pilger reports on what one doctor calls "another
On the eve of an election campaign, the Blair
government is attempting,
with mounting desperation, to suppress a scandal potentially greater
than the arms-to-Iraq cover-up. This is the deaths of hundreds of
thousands of people, perhaps many more, caused by decisions taken in
Whitehall and Washington. Moreover, the evidence of deceit and lying
points to at least two Cabinet ministers and three junior ministers.
At its centre is the unerring, wilful destruction of a whole society,
Iraq, the aim of which is to keep the regime in Baghdad weak enough to
be influenced by the west and yet strong enough to control its own
people. This is longstanding Anglo-American policy. Contrary to the
propaganda version about protecting Iraq's ethnic peoples, the objective
is to prevent a Kurdish secession in the north and the establishment of
a Shi'ite religious state in the rest of the country, while maintaining
the west's dominance of the region and its access to cheap oil.
The victims of this policy are 20 million Iraqis,
uniquely isolated from
the rest of humanity by an economic embargo whose viciousness has been
compared with a medieval siege. The word "genocide" has been used by
experts on international law and other cautious voices, such as Denis
Halliday, the former assistant secretary general of the United Nations,
who resigned as the UN's senior humanitarian official in Iraq, and Hans
von Sponeck, his successor, who also resigned in protest. Each had 34
years at the UN and were acclaimed in their field; their resignations,
along with the head of the World Food Programme in Baghdad, were
After more than a decade of sanctions, no one
on the Security Council
wants them, except the United States and Britain. The French foreign
minister, Hubert Vedrine, has called them "cruel, because they
exclusively punish the Iraqi people and the weakest among them, and
ineffective, because they don't touch the regime". Had Saddam Hussein
said on television "we think the price is worth it", referring to
Unicef's figure of half a million child deaths, he would have been
called a monster by the British government. Madeleine Albright said
that. Whitehall remained silent.
The Blair government has played the traditional
role of Washington's
proxy with particular enthusiasm. The latest Security Council
resolution, 1284, was drafted by British officials in New York. They are
said to be proud of it. Peter Hain, the Foreign Office minister,
constantly refers to it as "Iraq's way out". In fact, it is a specious
set of demands, requiring the return of weapons inspectors, but not
offering any guarantee that sanctions will be suspended if the regime
complies. Last year, Jon Davies, then head of the Iraq desk at the
Foreign Office, admitted the "lack of clarity in exactly what the
provisions will be". The suspicion all along, says Dr Eric Herring, the
Bristol University specialist, is that "US and British policy is one of
continually moving or hiding the goalposts so that compliance [by Iraq]
becomes impossible and so that the sanctions cannot be lifted".
In recent months, in the columns of the New
Statesman and the Guardian,
Peter Hain has defended a sanctions regime that, says Unicef, is a
principal cause of the deaths of at least 180 children every day. Hain's
articles and letters are scripted by Foreign Office officials using the
familiar, weasel lexicon that denied British support for the Khmer
Rouge, the use of Hawk aircraft in East Timor and the illegal shipment
of weapons parts to Britain's favourite 1980s tyrant, Saddam Hussein.
Sir Richard Scott's inquiry acknowledged their "culture of lying".
You get a sense of the scale of lying from
Hain's latest letter to the
NS (15 January), in which he claimed that "about $16bn of humanitarian
relief was available to the Iraqi people last year". Quoting UN
documents, Hans von Sponeck replies in this issue (page 37) that the
figure was actually for four years and that, after reparations are paid
to Kuwait and the oil companies, Iraq is left with just $100 a year with
which to keep one human being alive. That Hain does not appear even to
question the competence of those who write his disinformation is
remarkable. That he allows the bureaucracy of a rapacious order he once
opposed to invoke his anti-apartheid record is a bleak irony. That he is
said privately to have serious doubts about sanctions, which he rejected
for Zimbabwe, saying they would "hurt the ordinary people, not the
elite", is a measure of his ambition, and perhaps explains why he
refuses to engage his critics, preferring rhetoric and abuse. Each time
he calls a principled, informed critic, such as Halliday and von
Sponeck, "a dupe of Saddam Hussein", there is an echo of the apartheid
regime calling a young Hain "a dupe of communism".
The sanctions issue is one of three related
scandals involving epic
suffering and loss of life. The truth about the effects of depleted
uranium in shells fired in the 1991 Gulf war and Nato's 1999 attack on
Yugoslavia, is that the Americans and British waged a form of nuclear
warfare on civilian populations, disregarding the health and safety of
their own troops. This was largely to test the Pentagon's post-cold war
strategy of "all-out war".
On 9 January, John Spellar, the Defence Minister,
told the House of
Commons that the conclusion of many years of research showed "there is
no evidence linking DU to cancers or to the more general ill health
being experienced by some Gulf veterans". This echoes Peter Hain, who
said there had been "no credible research data". In fact, the data is
credible and voluminous, dating back to the development of the atomic
bomb in 1943, when Brigadier General Leslie Groves, the head of the
Manhattan Project, warned that particles of uranium used in ammunition
could cause "permanent lung damage". In 1991, the UK Atomic Energy
Authority warned that, if particles from merely 8 per cent of the DU
used in the Gulf were inhaled, there could be "300,000 potential
Spellar claimed there had been no rise in the
number of kidney ailments
or cancers among veterans of the Gulf war. The Ministry of Defence has
been told by the National Gulf Veterans and Families Association of a
dramatic increase in both diseases among veterans. Last year, Speller
said: "We are unaware of anything that shows depleted uranium has caused
any ill health or death of people who served in Kosovo or Bosnia."
Again, this was false. Nato's own guidelines include: "Inhalation of
insoluble depleted uranium dust particles has been associated with
long-term health effects including cancers and birth defects." It was
only after six Italian soldiers, who had served in Kosovo, died from
leukaemia, that the scandal caused panic in Nato, with the Defence
Secretary, Geoffrey Hoon, contradicting himself, saying DU posed a
"limited risk", then "no risks", then, bizarrely, that it is "protecting
For the Iraqi people, however, the cover-up
continues. What has been
striking about the political and media reaction over the past fortnight
is that most of the victims of depleted uranium have rated barely a
mention. Yet Tony Blair himself was made aware of their suffering when
he was sent, in March 1999, UN statistics, published in the British
Medical Journal, showing a sevenfold increase in cancer in southern Iraq
between 1989 and 1994.
It is in southern Iraq that the theoretical
figure of "500,000 potential
deaths" can be applied, in a desert landscape where the dust gets in
your eyes, nose and throat, swirling around people in the street and
children in playgrounds. In Basra's hospitals, the cancer wards are
overflowing. Before the Gulf war, they did not exist. "The dust carries
death," Dr Jawad Al-Ali, a cancer specialist and member of Britain's
Royal College of Physicians, told me. "Our own studies indicate that
more than 40 per cent of the population in this area will get cancer in
five years' time to begin with, then long afterwards. Most of my own
family now have cancer, and we have no history of the disease. It has
spread to the medical staff of this hospital. We are living through
another Hiroshima. Of course, we don't know the precise source of the
contamination, because we are not allowed [under sanctions] to get the
equipment to conduct a proper scientific survey, or even to test the
excess level in our bodies. We suspect depleted uranium. There simply
can be no other explanation."
The Sanctions Committee in New York has blocked
or delayed a range of
cancer diagnostic equipment and drugs, even painkillers. Professor Karol
Sikora, as chief of the cancer programme of the World Health
Organisation, wrote in the British Medical Journal: "Requested
radiotherapy equipment, chemotherapy drugs and analgesics are
consistently blocked by United States and British advisers [to the
Sanctions Committee]. There seems to be a rather ludicrous notion that
such agents could be converted into chemical or other weapons."
Professor Sikora told me: "The saddest thing
I saw in Iraq was children
dying because there was no chemotherapy and no pain control. It seemed
crazy they couldn't have morphine, because for everybody with cancer
pain, it is the best drug. When I was there, they had a little bottle of
aspirin pills to go round 200 patients in pain." Although there have
since been improvements in some areas, more than 1,000 life-saving items
remain "on hold" in New York, with Kofi Annan personally appealing for
their release "without delay".
I interviewed Professor Doug Rokke, the US
Army health physicist who led
the "clean-up" of depleted uranium in Kuwait. He now has 5,000 times the
permissible level of radiation in his body, and is ill. "There can be no
reasonable doubt about this," he said. "As a result of the heavy metal
and radiological poison of DU, people in southern Iraq are experiencing
respiratory problems, breathing problems, kidney problems, cancers.
Members of my own team have died or are dying from cancer . . . At
various meetings and conferences, the Iraqis have asked for the normal
medical treatment protocols. The US Department of Defense and the
British Ministry of Defence have refused them. I attended a conference
in Washington where the Iraqis came looking for help. They approached
myself, officials of the Defense Department and the British MoD. They
were told it was their responsibility; they were rebuffed."
The third strand in the cover-up is the killing
of Iraqi civilians by
RAF and American aircraft in the "no-fly zones". As Hans von Sponeck
points out in his letter, these violate international law. In a
five-month period surveyed by the UN Security Sector, almost half the
casualties were civilians. I interviewed eyewitnesses to one of the
attacks described in the UN report. A shepherd family of six - a
grandfather, the father and four children - were killed by a British or
American pilot, who made two passes at them in open desert. Pieces of
the missile lay among the remains of their sheep. United Nations staff -
not the Iraqi government - confirmed in person the facts of this
atrocity. The Blair government has spent £800m bombing Iraq.
In his 15 January letter to the NS, Peter Hain
described my reference to
the possibility that he, along with other western politicians, might
find themselves summoned before the new International Criminal Court as
"gratuitous". It is far from gratuitous. A report for the UN Secretary
General, written by Professor Marc Bossuyt, a distinguished authority on
international law, says that the "sanctions regime against Iraq is
unequivocally illegal under existing human rights law" and "could raise
questions under the Genocide Convention". His subtext is that if the new
court is to have authority, it cannot merely dispense the justice of the
powerful. A growing body of legal opinion agrees that the court has a
duty, as Eric Herring wrote, to investigate "not only the regime, but
also the UN bombing and sanctions which have violated the human rights
of Iraqi civilians on a vast scale by denying them many of the means
necessary for survival. It should also investigate those who assisted
[Saddam Hussein's] programmes of now prohibited weapons, including
western governments and companies."
Last year, Peter Hain blocked a parliamentary
request to publish the
full list of culpable British companies Why? A prosecutor might ask why,
then ask who has killed the most number of innocent people in Iraq:
Saddam Hussein, or British and American murderous policy-makers? The
answer may well put the murderous tyrant in second place.
We're punishing children, not Saddam
The Australian, 17 Jan 2001
TEN years after the start of the 1991 Gulf
War, the people of Iraq
remain victims of a silent weapon – comprehensive economic
Sanctions had been imposed by the UN Security
Council in August
1990 to force the restoration of the sovereignty of Kuwait, but were
reimposed after the war by Security Council resolution 687 on April 3,
1991, the primary goals of which were the elimination of Iraq's
weapons of mass destruction and the capacity to produce such
After a decade of suffering by innocent
people, and the deaths of
children on a scale far exceeding that caused by any military weapon
in history, the sanctions continue to bring misery and degradation to
all sectors of Iraqi society except their target, the Iraqi Government.
Surveys by agencies such as the UN Children's
Fund and an
enormous amount of anecdotal information indicate that the impact of
sanctions has seen a dramatic increase in infant mortality and
morbidity in the general population in Iraq. The scale of the tragedy is
not questioned by any humanitarian agency which has reported on
As early as 1993 the Food and Agriculture
Organisation and the
World Food Program reported that the sanctions had virtually
paralysed the whole economy and generated persistent deprivation,
chronic hunger, endemic undernutrition, massive unemployment and
widespread human suffering. The situation has not improved since
The oil-for-food program, which began
in 1996 to enable Iraq to sell
a small amount of oil in order to buy food and medicines, has barely
made an impact on the gravity of the suffering. The CARE
organisation reports that children, mothers, the aged and sick were all
cared for before 1990, but are now dying while the outside world
mistakenly believes it has solved Iraq's problems with the
much-delayed oil-for-food shipments.
Both former heads of the oil-for-food
program, Denis Halliday and
Hans Von Sponeck, resigned from the UN in protest at the effects of
the sanctions. Von Sponeck stated: "As a UN official, I should not be
expected to be silent to that which I recognise as a true human
tragedy that needs to be ended."
Halliday refers to the sanctions as genocide.
Both men resigned not
because of Iraqi Government corruption but because of UN Security
The question of Iraq's disarmament is an important
one. There is no
doubt that the UNSCOM (United Nations Special Commission) weapons
inspection teams were extraordinarily effective in eliminating the vast
bulk of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and the capacity to
produce them. Equally, however, there is no guarantee that such
weapons will not be built again. Since the departure of UNSCOM from
Iraq in December 1998, such an outcome is perhaps even more likely
As the continuation of sanctions has
been ineffective in securing the
resumption of weapons inspections in Iraq, it is difficult to argue that
the sanctions are still an essential element in suppressing Iraq's
weapons programs. It is important to note also that Security Council
resolution 687 of 1991 did not refer only to Iraq's disarmament but to
(paragraph 14) the goal of establishing a Middle East zone free from
weapons of mass destruction. It is perhaps even clearer now than in
1991 that the elimination of these weapons from the region is
imperative, and yet this essential step towards peace remains
The Government of Iraq bears enormous
responsibility for the welfare
of the Iraqi people. Similarly, the UN Security Council bears
responsibility for the effects of its own policies. However, as both
sides in this dispute refuse to budge, the children of Iraq continue to
die. It would not be unreasonable to expect that those nations which
claim higher moral standing might take it upon themselves to break
While the imposition of sanctions in
and again in 1991, might
have appeared at the time the best available instrument of coercion,
10 years later we see that comprehensive economic sanctions have
limited effect when applied to such a situation as Iraq. Only the most
vulnerable will suffer.
It is time for a change of direction.
In particular, it is time to allow
the people of Iraq to rebuild their society, to create a future for their
children, and to engage with the international community. Economic
sanctions should be lifted, but strict sanctions on military materials
must remain. And it is time to work for a zone free of all weapons of
mass destruction in the Middle East.
As Australians proudly celebrate our
centenary of Federation, we
must strive to retain the noble principles which unite us, the principles
of justice and a fair go, and to assert our independent standing in the
international community. We urge you to review Australia's policy
towards Iraq so that it properly reflects our common aspirations for
peace with justice for all people, including the people of Iraq.
Malcolm Fraser, Chairman CARE Australia, former prime minister,
Reverend Francis P. Carroll, Catholic Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn,
Elizabeth Evatt AC, former chief judge of the Family Court,
Doug Everingham, former federal minister for
health, member National
Consultative Committee on Peace and Disarmament,
Reverend Leonard Anthony Faulkner, Catholic
Archbishop of Adelaide,
Peter Garrett, President Australian Conservation Foundation,
Professor Ian Maddocks, chairman, National
on Peace and Disarmament,
Sir William Refshauge, patron Medical Association for Prevention of War,
Chris Sidoti, former human rights commissioner.