By Carol Marujo (Dr. Marujo, a US citizen living in Costa Rica, is a freelance writer, a peace activist and a member of the Friends Peace Center and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.)
Costa Rica became the world’s second country to ban depleted uranium weapons on June 9, 2011. President Laura Chinchilla signed into law the ban which had been passed earlier by the Legislative Assembly. Belgium had passed a similar law in 2007.
Depleted uranium (DU) is a chemically toxic, radioactive nuclear waste. It is called, depleted, because most of the highly unstable U235 isotope has been removed for use in nuclear reactors and bombs. DU emits radiation which has been linked to cancer, birth defects and other serious health problems when ingested or inhaled.
The use of DU in war is not for causing nuclear explosions, but rather as a material to fortify the armor in tanks and for making armor-piercing bullets and missiles. Aircraft and tanks fire these high-energy projectiles, which punch and burn through armor plates. The density of DU is 1.7 times that of lead, giving it increased range and penetrating power.
One of the key actores in the effort to ban DU weapons is Damacio López. He grew up in a small community in New Mexico where the high incidence of cancer and other serious health problems led him to investigate possible causes. He discovered that the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology had been testing DU weapons nearby. He became educated in the sciences and is the author of several scientific reports on DU. He is the executive director of the NGO, International Depleted Uranium Study Team (IDUST). He is also one of the founders of the International Coalition to Ban Depleted Uranium Weapons (ICBUW). The coalition brought together people from different disciplines, organizations and countries to call for an immediate ban on DU weapons.
Since 2005 López has lived in Costa Rica and continued to work for an international ban on DU. He enlisted the support of the Friends Peace Center (Centro de Amigos Cuáqueros para la Paz) and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
The Peace Center hosted an international conference in 2009, and Isabel Macdonald of the Peace Center joined the effort by becoming an ICBUW steering committee member. ICBUW presented scientific data along with films and photographs of young children with serious deformities and cancers from exposure to DU contaminated battlefields or as a result of soldiers being exposed to DU and later becoming parents. To date, the U.S. government has not warned its troops of possible danger from DU.
In 2009, the Costa Rican representative to the Latin American Parliament, who was also the president of the Human Rights Commission of that body, guided the passage of a resolution for a regional moratorium on DU weapons. Others are working to get bans in New Zealand and Ireland.
Opponents of a DU weapons ban say that the connection between the wartime use of DU and DU poisoning in humans lacks rigorous, scientific proof, and that DU does not harm human health or the environment. Supporters of a ban cite research from laboratory studies, illness in veterans and reports of cancers and birth defects, which they claim is strong enough to make an immediate ban necessary. They also argue that a ban is needed – even though DU weapons are already illegal under the general principles of humanitarian and environmental law – because a ban on a specific weapon is more effective in limiting its use. They cite experience with landmines and cluster bombs as examples.
ICBUW information materials explain that when DU weapons hit their targets, they burn at more than 3000 degrees Celsius and produce a toxic, radioactive dust which is readily inhaled into the lungs. From there, uranium compounds are deposited into the lymph nodes, bones, brain and testicles. When these weapons miss their targets, they may remain partially intact and pose a threat of contamination of soil and water. The half-life of DU is 4.5 billion years. The United States and its allies used DU in the 1991 Gulf war, in the Balkans and in the 2003 war in Iraq. ICBUW suspects that DU was used in Afghanistan, but the U.S. and the U.K. deny using it there. More than eighteen countries have stockpiles of DU.
For over five years López and Macdonald have campaigned in Costa Rica for a ban on DU weapons. In answer to the question of how they achieved their goal, Macdonald replied, “Persistence, perseverance and commitment to the cause.”