Association of Humanitarian Lawyers
Karen Parker, JD1
This paper was prepared for the International Uranium Weapons Conference, Hamburg, Germany, October 16 - 19, 2003.
Mme Forero Ucros did not submit a paper and did not return to the Sub-Commission. At the 1998 session of the Commission on Human Rights, Claire Palley was not nominated by the UK, which instead nominated Francoise Jane Hampson who was elected. Between 1998 and 2001 our efforts turned to reinforcing the legal position with written and oral presentations (years 1998 and 1999 in CADU report), presenting new studies, having round tables and seminars, showing films, and generally trying to keep up the momentum. At the same time, we looked for a replacement for Mme Forero Ucros and kept the issue on the agenda through decisions to carry over the working paper.
At the Sub-Commission 2001 session Sub-Commission member Justice Yeung Sik Yuen agreed to take on the weapons paper and Sub-Commission member Miguel Alfonso Martinez (Cuba) introduced a decision to that effect. The Alfonso Martinez draft surfaced with sufficient signatures to pass and was “tabled” as Sub-Commission Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/2001/L.2. (In the UN, “tabled” means “ready for action” rather than “dismissed”. The “L” stands for “limited” documents, which are circulated at the sessions but not published). At that point Ms. Hampson tried to have the Sub-Commission agree to issue a separate resolution on DU weaponry, which would then be taken off the list of weapons that Sik Yuen was to address and assigned to another Member, presumably herself. She submitted amendments to draft L.2, circulated as Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/2001/L.36 forwarding this idea. Ms. Hampson appeared to not want that DU weapons be considered automatically “incompatible” with existing norms. The “other” weapons on the list to be studied are fuel air bombs, cluster bombs, chemical, biological, bacteriological and other weapons, some of which are commonly embraced under the term “weapons of mass destruction”. By requiring separate analysis of DU weaponry, the implication would be that DU weapons are not necessarily “incompatible” with existing norms.
During the debates at the 2001 session, I spoke on behalf of IED/HLP and several other NGO’s made statements about DU, as did the governments of Iraq and Yugoslavia. Not surprisingly, both the US government and the UK government spoke up strongly against this issue, and their position was widely viewed as responsible for Ms. Hampson’s attempt to sever DU from the report.7 Ms. Sim, representing the US, questioned the information that there was evidence showing that DU was harmful. And in any case, the US said a study of weapons containing DU would exceed the Sub-Commission’s “expertise, scope and mandate.” (E/CN.2/Sub.2/2001/SR.24). Mr. Bendall of the UK echoed the US, thereby showing yet again what the UK activists identify as “copy cat”, US driven policy. (E/CN.4/Sub.2/2002/SR.24). A number of the members of the Sub-Commission went on record strongly disagreeing with the US/UK views.
When L.2 (the Alfonso Martinez) draft was called up for vote, M. Alfonso Martinez said that he could not accept Ms. Hampson’s proposed amendments and recommended a voice vote at that point on L.2. The Chair (an American) however, said that the issue would be taken up later.(See the Summary record at E/CN.4/Sub.2/2001/SR. 25). While there was no explanation for this, the delay was assumed to be so that the US would have time to “lobby” the members to vote for the Hampson amendments. However, when the Sub-Commission did take up the issue, the Sub-Commission as a whole rejected the Hampson amendments (see the Summary Record: E/CN.4/Sub.2/2001/SR.27) and adopted L.2, which became Sub-Commission Decision 2001/36. In brief, the Sub-Commission re-iterated that DU weapons, along with fuel air bombs, cluster bombs, chemical, biological and bacteriological weapons, are “incompatible” with existing law and appointed Justice Sik Yuen to prepare the working paper originally assigned to Mme Forero Ucros.
Throughout 2001 and up to the 2002 session of the Commission on Human Rights Justice Sik Yuen collected documentation, studied all the reports and information sent to him, and worked on the report. However, he was up for re-election to the Sub-Commission in 2002 at the Commission on Human Rights. The United States decided that it had to ensure that Justice Sik Yuen would not be re-elected, hoping that as a person no longer on the Sub-Commission, Justice Sik Yuen would not present a working paper. At the Commission, the US, aided by the UK, carried out an overtly insidious campaign against Justice Sik Yuen. I am certain that large-scale “debt-reduction” agreements and serious arm-twisting augmented this. The result was that Justice Sik Yuen was not re-elected.
To the disappointment of the US and the UK, Justice Sik Yuen presented his paper (U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/2002/38) at the 2002 session even though he had been voted off the Sub-Commission. Predictably, Ms. Hampson (UK) was quite critical of the paper, but the vast majority of the Sub-Commission members were very pleased with it. In fact, the Sub-Commission made a rarely used and highly complimentary decision to ask Justice Sik Yuen to prepare a second “up-dated” working paper to be submitted to the Sub-Commission at its 2003 session. In retaliation, the US and UK orchestrated a maneuver at the 2003 session of the Commission on Human Rights to deny the Sub-Commission the authority to ask a former member to continue work on a topic already begun as a “working paper.” In spite of this, it was too late to take away the Sub-Commission’s prior approval of an “updated” report, and Justice Sik Yuen showed that he could not be “embarrassed” away from the work. He prepared and submitted the updated paper to Sub-Commission at its 2003 session. (U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/2003/35).
Predictably, Ms. Hampson of the UK was highly critical of this paper, and in completely unfair ways. For example, she criticized the lack of reference to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) when the ICRC had not made any statements about DU and there was nothing to report. Further, she questioned his lack of analysis under human rights law, when that issue was addressed in his earlier report. Certain DU activists emailed me comments about the report, which they felt did not have enough about possible radiological weapons use in Afghanistan, but when I replied with my explanation they indicated satisfaction with the report.8
Because of the Commission decision to forbid assignments to former members the Sub-Commission could not ask Sik Yuen to do any more. However, we decided that what needed to be said regarding the legal arguments about DU weaponry had already been set out in his two reports, votes and comments of the Sub-Commission members, in my Memorandum and numerous NGO written statements, statements and written statements of other UN NGO’s, and other sources. Ms. Hampson, meanwhile, was trying to be assigned a further DU paper but the other members rejected this -- in part because she was from the UK and would likely try to undermine the legal status of DU weapons, in part because they saw through her unfair critique and in part because she had been assigned other work that she did not do. So the reports stand with Sub-Commission approval, and are, of course, part of the UN record and the work of both the Sub-Commission and the Commission. Governments are considered to be “on notice” of the illegality of DU.
In his first report, Justice Sik Yuen, sets out all the basic instruments of human rights and humanitarian law relevant to analysis of weaponry, sets out his formula for the weapons tests, and evaluates each of the listed weapons. While his analysis of this body of law and his formula of the “test” for weapons is worded a bit differently than mine, it largely parallels mine and leads to the same, obvious conclusion that DU weaponry is illegal. His “updated report” summarizes the first report and the Sub-Commission debate on it and provides new information regarding DU (such as its use in Iraq), some of the other weapons, and introduces “directed energy weapons” or “DEW’s.
A weapon is made illegal two ways: (1) by adoption of a specific treaty banning it; and (2) because it may not be used without violating the existing law and customs of war. A weapon made illegal only because there is a specific treaty banning it is only illegal for countries that ratify such a treaty. A weapon that is illegal by operation of existing law is illegal for all countries. This is true even if there is also a treaty on this weapon and a country has not ratified that treaty. As there is no specific treaty banning depleted uranium weapons, its illegality must be established the second way.
The laws and customs of war (humanitarian law) includes all treaties governing military operations, weapons and protection of victims of war as well as all customary international law on these subjects.10 In other words, in evaluating whether a particular weapon is legal or illegal when there is not a specific treaty, the whole of humanitarian law must be consulted.11
There are four rules derived from the whole of humanitarian law regarding weapons:
(1) Weapons may only be used in the legal field of battle, defined as legal military targets of the enemy in the war. Weapons may not have an adverse effect off the legal field of battle. (The "territorial" test).
(2) Weapons can only be used for the duration of an armed conflict. A weapon that is used or continues to act after the war is over violates this criterion. (The "temporal" test).12
(3) Weapons may not be unduly inhumane. (The "humaneness"
test). The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 use the terms “unnecessary
(4) Weapons may not have an unduly negative effect on the natural environment. (The "environmental" test).
DU weaponry fails all four tests. (1) It cannot be "contained" to legal fields of battle and thus fails the territorial test. Instead the DU is air-born far a-field of legal targets to illegal (civilian) targets: hospitals, schools, civilian dwellings and even neighboring countries with which the user is not at war. (2) It cannot be “turned off” when the war is over. Instead, DU weaponry continues to act after hostilities are over and thus fail the temporal test. Even with rigorous clean-up of war zones, the air-born particles have a half life of billions of years and have potential to keep killing and injuring former combatants and non-combatants long after the war is over. (3) It is inhumane and thus fails the humaneness test. DU weaponry is inhumane because of how it can kill -- by cancer, kidney disease, etc. -- and long after the hostilities are over when the killing must stop. DU is inhumane because it can cause birth (genetic) defects such as cranial facial anomalies, missing limbs, grossly deformed and non-viable infants and the like, thus effecting children who may never be a military target and who are born after the war is over. The tetragenic nature of DU weapons and the possible burdening of the gene pool of future generations raise the possibility that the use of DU weaponry is genocide. (4) It cannot be used without unduly damaging the natural environment and thus fails the environment test. Damage to the natural environment includes contamination of water and agricultural land necessary for the subsistence of the civilian population far beyond the lifetime of that population. Clean up is an inexact science and, in any case, extremely expensive -- far beyond the ability of a poor country to pay for.
One of the more useful provisions of treaty-based humanitarian law is the "Martens Clause" to the Hague Convention of 1907 that is repeated in subsequent humanitarian law treaties. The Marten's Clause provides that in situations where there is not a specific treaty provision (which is the case with DU), the international community is nonetheless bound by "the rules of the principles of the law of nations, as they result from the usages established among civilized peoples, from the laws of humanity and the dictates of the public conscience."14 There is a huge anti-DU international effort from a wide array of groups representing every facet of civil society. The existence of the anti-DU network is legally relevant to the finding that DU is illegal, and buttresses arguments that use of DU weaponry is a war crime or crime against humanity and may play a decisive role in stopping proliferation of these weapons.15
How bad is DU weaponry?
There is a certain amount of controversy among scientists/medical researchers and developers and users of DU weaponry about exactly what DU does and how bad is it. Predictably, the users of DU claim DU weapons have no “bad” effects that would ban them, while scientific/medical researchers present a wide array of consequences that alone and together ban DU weapons from military use.16 However, “what it does” and “how bad is it” are scientific issues, not legal ones. Even so, the members of the UN Sub-Commission as well as other international law specialists that have looked into what is known about DU consider that even under outdated risk analysis and using the most conservative of possible negative consequences DU weapons are bad enough to be considered banned.
A complete understanding of the effects of DU on the human body or the natural environment will probably never be reached. Even so, efforts by independent and impartial scientists/medical researchers should be made in this area as the more is known about DU weapons and their effects, the better one can treat victims and assess legal “damages.” In any case, the issue of the effects of DU weaponry is an issue for scientists and medical researchers and should be “debated” among them. Their studies and reports can then be used to better fashion medical remedies, environmental clean-up efforts, and, of course, to present in legal proceedings by which victims seek compensation.17 And while it would be impossible to prove that a particular case of cancer, or a particular birth defect was caused by DU, pre-DU base-line statistics, coupled with the likelihood of DU being a causal factor, can facilitate damage awards.18
It is not surprising that disagreements about “how bad is bad” (with many “opinions” of persons who are not scientists/medical researchers entering the fray) are used to draw attention from or even seemingly undermine the fact that DU weaponry cannot possibly be legal in light of existing law.19 The controversies seem to also have affected the dissemination of the United Nations materials on DU weaponry, as a number of prominent “anti-DU” groups do not raise the illegality of DU in their materials and do not have any references to the UN resolutions or the reports of Justice Sik Yuen. While it is certainly important to have as accurate an understanding of DU weaponry from all aspects (deleterious effects, weapons delivery, and location of all use), resolving these questions will not change the fact that DU weapons are illegal or make DU “more” illegal. DU is bad enough to be banned, and that is what should be as widely and quickly disseminated as possible.
Is DU weaponry “nuclear” or “conventional?”
There is also conflicting opinion from scientists as to whether DU weapons should be considered “nuclear” and thus also governed by the treaties dealing with nuclear weapons or conventional (i.e. non-nuclear).20 DU is also referred to as a “radiological”, or “poison” substance. While potentially important from a scientific perspective, the status of DU as nuclear, radiological, poison or conventional does not change its illegality: when the weapons test is applied to DU weaponry, it fails. Even if DU weapons are considered “conventional” they are subject to the same weapons test set out here. Further, they would also be subject to the Conventional Weapons Convention of 1980. That Convention itself incorporates most of the elements of the weapons test set out here: civilians must be protected from the effects of hostilities (Preamble, paragraph 3); “weapons, projectiles and materials and methods of warfare” may not cause unnecessary suffering or superfluous injury (Preamble, paragraph 4); weapons may not severely damage the natural environment (Preamble, paragraph 5). Paragraph 6 of the Preamble sets out the Martens clause. The inclusion of these rules in this convention reinforces the fact that these tests are universal and legally binding.
Consequences of use of DU weaponry in military operations
Under international law, there are a number of requirements to remedy breaches of the Geneva Conventions and other rules forming the laws and customs of war. A minimum requirement of the duty to remedy from use of illegal weaponry is compensation for victims.21 This can include, for example, military and civilian victims from wars and depleted uranium weaponry use at military ranges. Part of the minimum remedy is the duty to disclose fully all facts about the weapons and their development and deployment.22 Regarding environmental damages, users of these weapons are obligated to carry out an effective clean up. When lands and water resources cannot be effectively cleaned up, the State causing the damage must pay damages equal to the loss of those lands and waters from the national patrimony. In US dollars, the cost of legal claims and environmental cleanup for the Gulf Wars alone could be staggering.
In addition to liability for damages to victims or the environment, users of DU weapons should face penal sanctions under existing humanitarian law provisions. For example, the Geneva Conventions of 1949 require that signatory States have domestic legal mechanisms for trying persons alleged to have committed serious violations of humanitarian law.23 Article 146 further states that all signatory states have a duty to search for alleged violators and to bring them to its own tribunals, regardless of their nationality. Article 148 prohibits any State from absolving itself or any other State from liability for serious violations.
Because of these provisions in the Geneva Convention, the “agreements” sought and obtained by the United States under which other States agreed to not bring actions against United States military personnel for a number of years must be considered null and void to the degree those agreements violate provisions of Geneva Conventions. While the United States might be able to obtain anticipatory agreement to not bring US military personnel before the International Criminal Court to which the United States is not a party, the United States cannot abrogate these Geneva Conventions rules or require that other States abrogate Geneva Convention rules.
Grounds for considering DU weaponry use in military operations a war crime and crime against humanity
Some argue that use of DU weaponry, while in violation of existing norms, would not constitute a war crime or crime against humanity.24 I disagree. War crimes and crimes against humanity are defined in the Nuremberg Charter, in the “grave breach” articles of the Geneva Conventions and Protocols Additional to the Geneva Conventions, and in other sources as set out in international treaties on war crimes and crimes against humanity.25 In the 4th Geneva Convention (protection of civilians), for example, grave breaches include “willful killing . . . or inhumane treatment, . . . willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health” of civilians -- which is exactly what DU weapons do.26 Article 85 of Protocol Additional I adds indiscriminate attacks affecting civilians and other acts that necessarily occur with the use of DU weaponry to the enumeration of “grave breaches.” The genocidal effects on people long after hostilities cease is another ground for consideration of DU weapons use as a crime against humanity.
In the course of armed conflicts (wars), weapons may
only be used against legal military targets and for the duration of
the war. Weapons may not cause undue suffering or cause superfluous
injury. Weapons may not use or employ “poison.” Weapons may not severely
damage the environment. DU weaponry cannot be used in military operations
without violating these rules, and therefore must be considered illegal.
Use of illegal weapons constitutes a violation of humanitarian law and
subjects the violators to legal liability for their effects on victims
and the environment as well as criminal liability. In my view, use of
DU weaponry necessarily violates the grave breach provisions of the
Geneva Conventions, and hence its use constitutes a war crime or crime
The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 (and Regulations).
The Geneva Conventions of 1949 (I-IV).
Protocols Additional I and II to the Geneva Conventions (1977).
The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1949).
The Statute of the International Criminal Court, and the “Elements of Crimes” set out by the Preparatory Commission.
The Law of Armed Conflict at the Operational and Tactical Level, Government of Canada, Office of the Judge Advocate General, Document B-GG-005-027/AF-020, Ottawa, 1999. Available at the website of the Judge Advocate General. I consider this one of the best national manuals of armed conflict law for use by military personnel.
United Nations. Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights resolution 1996/16.
United Nations. Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights resolution 1997/36.
United Nations. Report of the Secretary-General. U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1997/27 and Adds.
Human rights and weapons of mass destruction, or with indiscriminate effect, or of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering, Working paper submitted by Y.K.J. Yeung Sik Yuen, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/2002/38.
Human rights and weapons of mass destruction, or with indiscriminate effect, or of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering, Working paper submitted by Y.K.J. Yeung Sik Yuen, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/2003/35.
Parker, Karen, Depleted Uranium at the United Nations: A Compilation of Documents and Explanation and Strategy Analysis, Campaign Against Depleted Uranium, Manchester, 2000.
Parker, Karen, “Depleted uranium and the Gulf War”, written statement on behalf of IED/HLP, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/1997/NGO/49.
Parker, Karen, [Weaponry and Humanitarian Law], written statement on behalf of IED/HLP, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1997/NGO/19.
Parker, Karen, “Weapons, Human Rights and Humanitarian Law,” written statement on behalf of IED/HLP, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1998/NGO/25.
Parker, Karen, [Sanctions Against Iraq: Human Rights and Humanitarian Law Considerations], written statement on behalf of IED/HLP, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/1999/NGO/199.
Parker, Karen, [Weapons and humanitarian law], written statement on behalf of IED/HLP, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/2003/16.
1J.D. (honors, Univ. San Francisco, 1983), Diplome (cum laude, Strasbourg, 1982), non-governmental delegate to UN Commission on Human Rights and its Sub-Commission since 1982. This paper is prepared for the International Uranium Weapons Conference, Hamburg, Germany, 16 - 19, 2003.
2I found out about DU weapons from Philippa Winkler, who along with Dr. Horst Gunther, Dr. Beatrice Boctor, and “Bridges to Baghdad, and under the credential of my organization International Educational Development/Humanitarian Law Project (IED/HLP), compiled information about DU weaponry and informed the members of the Commission on Human Rights at its 1996 session about DU. Margarita Papandreou and several other members of her organization “Women for Mutual Security, also attended on behalf of my organization, with a focus mainly on the effects of the sanctions against Iraq. Only UN-credentialed organizations may participate in the UN session, which is why my organization issued credentials for persons representing other NGO’s. In 2000 I prepared Depleted Uranium at the United Nations: A Compilation of Documents and an Explanation and Strategy Analysis (CADU report) printed and distributed by CADU (Campaign Against Depleted Uranium)(www.CADU.org.uk). It covers events undertaken at and by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights from the spring 1996 session of the Commission through the summer 1999 session of the Sub-Commission and contains essentially all the written statements, speeches, documents, resolutions and decisions of that period.
3It is important to set out that the DU work at the UN has focused on DU weaponry, although other DU issues have been presented. For example, the Commission has an existing procedure on toxics that we have utilized to address DU in general as well as in the context of weaponry.
4The Sub-Commission is composed of 26 persons nominated by their governments who sit in their individual capacity on the Sub-Commission. Only Sub-Commission members vote. The Commission on Human Rights is composed of governments who vote as governments.
5At the 1996 session of the Sub-Commission,
Fabio Marcelli (an attorney representing “Bridges to Baghdad) and Dr.
Boctor attended. In the course of the 7 years effort at the UN session,
I have provided credentials for Fabio Marcelli, Philippa Winkler, Dr.
Boctor, Dr. Rosalie Bertell, Dr. Horst Gunther, Damacio Lopez, Dai Williams,
Margarita Papandreou and three of her teammates from “Women for Mutual
Security” and a number of others. We have held “round-tables” in conjunction
with other NGO’s, in which we have shown films and circulated a number
of reports and eye-witness accounts of post-DU Iraq.
10Customary international law, which includes:
The Hague law (governing military operations); and Geneva law (governing
protected parties in time of war) is binding on all countries. The United
States Supreme Court has consistently upheld the binding nature of customary
law, including customary humanitarian law. All of international law,
including the UN Charter and Statute of the International Court of Justice,
reflects the binding nature of customary law.
13Article 23 of The Hague Convention of
1907, Regulations. This article also forbids “poison or poisoned weapons.”
Some might argue that DU weapons are necessarily poisonous, and therefore
directly forbidden by Article 23.
16Justice Sik Yuen refers to the “cavalier
disregard, if not deception” by the users and developers of DU weapons
of their effects. U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/2003/35 at para. 52.
19The controversies about weapons-delivery and where DU has been used have, intentionally or inadvertently, also seemingly draws undue attention from or undermines information about the illegality of DU weaponry.
20The United States tries to foster the
idea that as DU weaponry is “conventional” it is not banned -- giving
the erroneous impression that conventional weapons are not subject to
the weapons test.
22The Corfu Channel case underscores the duty to disclose.
23Geneva Convention IV, Article 146. This
provision is an all four conventions. For convenience, I cite to the
article numbers from Geneva Convention IV (civilians).
25See, esp., Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, 754 UNTS 73. This treaty identifies genocide and as crimes against humanity. The elements of war crimes and crimes against humanity set out by the International Criminal Court are also instructive on these points.
26Note that the same article exists in the
other three Geneva Conventions of 1949 so it is equally illegal to kill
combatants with DU. A fundamental rule of armed conflict law is that
combatants may only be targeted with weaponry when they are “in combat”
-- meaning “on duty” and not sick, wounded or a POW.