My Depleted Uranium Prohibition Bill is likely to get a first reading tonight. It is a chance for New Zealand to take a lead on banning the Agent Orange of the 21st century.
Depleted uranium is the by-product of processing uranium ore for use in nuclear reactors or bombs. It is incredibly hard and is used in armour piercing munitions. It ignites on impact and disperses a radioactive smoke which is also chemically toxic causing heavy-metal poisoning.
The US and UK used depleted uranium munitions in the 1991 Gulf War, in the Balkans in 1999, and in Iraq in 2003. They may have also been used in Afghanistan since 2001 although this is denied by the US. You might have seen a story by Michael Field in the Sunday Star Times reporting that NZ soldiers are urine-tested on return from Iraq and Afghanistan to check their exposure.
There is growing international concern about depleted uranium weapons. About one-third of the 800,000 US veterans of the 1991 Gulf War now claim disablity benefits for mystery illnesses, and depleted uranium has been suggested as one of the risk factors for the syndrome. There has been a sharp upsurge in cancers and birth deformities in Iraq after 1991 and 2003, most recently in Fallujah which was the scene of heavy US bombardment in 2004.
Medical studies conclusively linking depleted uranium weapons to health effects on civilians and combatants have not been done. The military powers using these weapons are secretive and obstructive. But there is growing concern and enough medical evidence that depleted uranium is a potential hazard to warrant a precautionary approach.
My bill bans depleted uranium weapons just like New Zealand has banned nuclear weapons, landmines and cluster munitions. Until the military users of these weapons are prepared to open up their records and allow conclusive scientific studies on the health risks I believe we should outlaw their use.
Belgium and Cost Rica have already legislated bans. If New Zealand adds its voice to this growing international movement we can make a real difference.
I am expecting the Opposition parties will support the bill to select committee. National MPs have indicated they won’t support it, and the International Campaign to Ban Uranium Weapons has replied to their concerns in an open letter published here.
You can bet that if depleted uranium weapons were being used on New Zealand soil we would take the precautionary approach. We owe the same duty of care to civilians exposed to depleted uranium in war.