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 dangerous. 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.