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Australia proves a soft touch at UN over toxic warfare


The Federal Government has already breached its recently announced 'Australian Agenda' at the UN, succumbing to US pressure to abstain from a vote on depleted uranium weapons that would strengthen civilian protections.

At the UN First Committee vote held earlier this month, which will be ratified by the General assembly this week, 138 nations voted in favour of the resolution seeking greater transparency and a precautionary approach in the use of depleted uranium (DU) weapons, known to be radioactive and chemically toxic. Four nations, the US, France, Israel and the UK, all users of DU weapons, voted against the resolution and pressured other nations.(Continues below)


Australia abstained, isolating itself from the majority of nations and blatantly breaching the admirable 'Australian agenda' which emphasises arms control, nuclear non-proliferation and women's rights. This leaves Australia in an awkward position ahead of taking up its temporary position in the UN Security Council.


The resolution put forward a non-threatening, commonsense approach that aims to provide better protection to civilians left to deal with the toxic legacy of weapons. A significant majority of states accept that precaution is justified and recognise the need for post-conflict measures to protect civilian health.

Depleted uranium, used in conventional weapons for its  armour piercing capabilities, presents a clear risk to human health and the environment, the greatest victims being women, children and the unborn; as well as entire communities struggling to utilise land for agriculture in a toxic eco-system.

An estimated 400,000kg of depleted uranium has been dispersed in Iraq since 1991. The long-term impact on civilians is unknown, but several studies have linked it to a dramatic rise in birth defects in Basra and Fallujah.

On a recent visit to Iraq I spent a week in Fallujah Hospital. Each day I met babies with birth defects, including a new-born with a bloodied, fleshy hole in her back — a classic case of spina bifida, a common occurrence now along with brain dysfunction, spinal conditions, unformed limbs and cleft palet.

'Depleted uranium' by Chris JohnstonAnother day I walked through Fallujah cemetery which is littered with small, unmarked graves for babies, and stood with Marwan and Bashir, a young, healthy couple, at the grave of their baby Mohamed, who lived five minutes after birth. He was their fourth baby to die. They will not try again.

Gynaecologists' recommendation to the women of Fallujah is simpy to stop falling pregnant, as it is likely they will not give birth to a healthy baby. The implication is shocking: a city of about 300,000 with a generation of young women who may never be mothers; and another generation who may not live, at least not a healthy life.

Four new studies on the health crisis in Fallujah have been released in the last three months. The studies suggest the babies are dying of wounds from a war they never saw. That this epidemic is the legacy of toxic weapons dispersed in this community in the ferocious attacks by US forces in 2004.

The Australian abstention was lodged despite a vigorous community campaign for a 'yes' vote, and has been questioned for its inconsistency by experts, international activists, the Australian Campaign to Ban Uranium Weapons, and now by Labor MPs.

The Australian Defence Forces deem depleted uranium — the 'Agent Orange' of today — a hazard and will not use it. And a 2010 trade agreement with the USA specifically does not allow Australian uranium to be used for depleted uranium weapons — a significant and intentional inclusion.

Sydney Labor MP John Murphy raised the issue in Parliament noting the Government's appropriate wariness. 'The Australian Defence Force and the government are wise to take such a precautionary approach considering the well-documented hazards of DU weapons,' he said.

'It would therefore be consistent to extend this precaution to assist civilian communities caught up in conflicts where DU weapons are used ... Considering this precautionary approach, it is logical that Australia would change its vote from abstaining to voting yes.'

Despite the Government's acknowledgement of the hazardous nature of DU, Australia has repeated its line that the science does not support precaution. Yet the studies cited are deemed by experts to be outdated.  They are short-term studies, none looking at long-term impact on civilians, and are now superseded by new science and research.

Many researchers argue the science is there and it is compelling. But even if there remain questions and uncertainty, the precautionary principle should apply.

Militaries take extreme precaution in handling DU weapons. The spirit of this UN resolution is simply to extend this precaution to civilians, who, because of the nature of modern urban warfare, see battles arrive on their doorsteps and invade their streets and houses.

This issue draws attention to the dangers that remain in neighbourhoods when armies pack up and leave. Remnants of war that explode, such as landmines and cluster bombs, attract attention and clearance programs. But another deadly remnant exists, the toxic remnant of war whose silent legacy is still unclear.

Donna Mulhearn headshotDonna Mulhearn is a freelance journalist and peace activist. She will return for her fifth visit to Iraq early next year. Photos by Donna Mulhearn. Follow Donna on Twitter

Topic tags: Donna Mulhearn, depleted uranium



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Existing comments

Let's face facts Donna, Australia does not care to rock the boat. We refuse rights to the Palestinians, throw all conventions in the bin and wash our hands of law.

Marilyn | 02 December 2012  

This whole matter seems to have passed under many people's radars, Donna. I cannot remember reading anything about it in the press. Thank you for enlightening me. I have passed it on to friends. Like land mines, DU shells should be banned.

Edward F | 02 December 2012  

I agree with Edward's comment. The attention of the AusTralian media is too inward-looking given the DU problem. With our soldiers having been involved and our experiences of asbestos, one would have hoped we would be in the vanguard, not soft-touches.

David Ardagh | 02 December 2012  

Poor fella my country. How shameful a nation we have become, a lickspittle toady of the USA! The US Military Analysis Network offers a long statement on DU and its health and environmental consequences. The content is 90% concerned with DU's effect upon personnel, battle fields and equipment. Ms Mulhearn and all grieving parents will be pleased to know that health risks are found to be "minimal...within current safety and health standards and are controlled by the Army's radiation protection program...The hazards associated with DU contamination are PROBABLY small [emphasis added]...the Army has done an excellent job of attending to the environmental and health impacts of these systems." Depleted uranium has a half-life of 4.5 Billion years.

Caroline Storm | 02 December 2012  

Thank You Donna Mulhern! Thank you for being the peace warrior you are! This issue is actively covered up because of our US bases dotted around Australia who test these radioactive weapons in many Australian locations where are food is grown.

Valerie | 02 December 2012  

As with Edward and David, this issue had not come to my attention and I, too, will be passing on this article.

G.O.W. | 02 December 2012  

So what's to be done now? Draw to the attention of GetUp or AVAAZ?

Winsome Thomas | 02 December 2012  

Australian government must have a short-sighted short-term policy on studies regarding DU weapons. What government anywhere in the world wants to take a long-term responsibility towards the post-war survivors and their future generations? Agent Orange is a clear example of government attitude. Ignore it and it will eventually go away, give or take 200 years.

Frances Yule | 03 December 2012  

I am a Falluji citizen (from Fallujah).Thanks a lot for bringing this case to the public and international media , but who cares ? Now 7 yrs passed and no action or even condemnation was heard from the UN etc.Dear , couples here in Fallujah get engaged , marry and give birth to babies , caring not to the hazards before them and their NBs referring all matters to God although precautions should be considered .

Individuals like you Madame are braver than countries including yours who refused to vote .Another thing , Vietnam , the MDW and nuclear bomb thrown on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 50 yrs ago ; no resolution was taken , because the UN and SC are led and directed by America and its allies .Many other maladies or cases appeared in Fallujah ; take this many got tumoral allergy , because of the radiation and cases never witnessed before .

Habib | 04 December 2012  

The issue of birth defects in Falluga came to my attention over a year ago. Since then I have used a Google Alert to follow the issue and have discovered the evidence is very strong. I am saddened to see that Australia has abstained from a vote on the issue. The fact that Australian Defence forces deem depleted uranium a hazard and will not use it makes Australia's stance on this issue, in my view, inconsistent and wrong. Betsy Conti

Betsy Conti | 06 December 2012  

I knew Fallujah was a major war crime at the time - in which Australia was involved as a participant. Interested readers might like to read

http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/11/08/1099781320025.html (which I wrote just before the battle).

http://rebellenation.blogspot.com.au/2005/03/inculcating-fear-in-fallujah-wednesday_14.html (which I swrote a few days after the battle, drawing on reliable international reportage)

Fallujah is a really important part of the Iraq War horror story. Donna's article exposes another dimension of the horror of which we were part , as an active military participant in the attack on Fallujah. Senior Australian officers attached to the US forces in Iraq helped plan the sack of Fallujah.

The name of Fallujah will never be forgotten.

tony kevin | 06 December 2012  

Thank you Donna. I had no idea. What is there to say?

Bernadette | 06 December 2012  

Maiming or killing anyone with explosives or bullets is hardly acceptable behaviour but as a medical scientist I should point out that depleted uranium carries little risk because of radioactivity. But it is a heavy metal and hence a cumulative poison. Also remember that one in every hundred children born in our affluent society has a major birth defect sometimes not compatible with life. Transposed to Fallujah,one might expect thousands of such defects in a year, even without heavy metal poisoning

John Thompson | 08 December 2012  

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