Press coverage of the issue of depleted uranium-tipped ammunition this week was most notable for what it left out: any substantial reference to the local civilian populations affected in Kosovo, Bosnia and Iraq. Not until 13 January did a major article appear considering the effect on "the other side."
Instead the press focused on the possible effects of the controversial weapons on NATO peacekeeping soldiers who served in areas where the weapons were fired. The media found politicians and civil servants to be sitting duck targets.
Easy week for headline writers
Headline-writers were stuck on one theme. The favourite adjective of the week was, without a doubt, "depleted." A leading article in The Independent on 12 January was the third in a week on the subject—a measure of how the issue has hogged the limelight. This article criticised the British government's messy handling of the affair for displaying "depleted logic."
Similarly "depleted confidence" was the front-cover verdict of The Editor, The Guardian's weekly news supplement. NATO itself came under fire from the Financial Times which recorded its "depleted credibility," while The Economist went for plain old "depleted NATO." Meanwhile, Mark Steel accused the Americans of displaying "depleted imagination" in its Hollywood propaganda (The Independent, 11 January).
After steadfastly rejecting all previous suggestions that there might be anything wrong with depleted uranium (DU) weapons, on 9 January Downing Street insisted on over-ruling the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Downing Street announced an unsatisfactory compromise of voluntary screening for soldiers who had served in Kosovo or Bosnia, though not, perplexingly, in the Gulf. This followed similar decisions by several other European governments. But it was not an admission of anything. Voluntary screening was being offered... well, just in case.
This was described as "the MoD's embarrassing u-turn" by The Guardian (11 January) and "a dramatic about-turn in government policy" by The Times (10 January).
Not a new controversy
It is not as though fears about DU sprang from nowhere. There were reports following the Gulf War of the apparent DU legacy in Iraq: birth defects, cancers, perhaps Gulf War syndrome. The Independent's Robert Fisk has written a number of articles over the years since.
This week on 8 January he referred to "a government report detailing the extraordinary lengths to which the authorities went at DU shell-test-firing ranges in the UK—the shells are fired into a tunnel in Cumbria and the resulting dust sealed into concrete containers which are buried." Yet, until this week official responses have always played down the risk.
One or two tried to defend DU this week on the basis that it has been used in tiny amounts as balancing weights in commercial aircraft and yacht keels because of its density. Paul Brown, The Guardian's Environment Correspondent, noted on 12 January that "this is being phased out on safety grounds because of the radioactivity and toxic dangers in case of accident."
One of the most awkward revelations this week in Britain was this: In 1997 an internal report by British army doctors (and approved by senior officers) warned of the dangers of exposure to DU. During the Kosovo conflict there were already articles being published on the use of DU weapons by NATO forces (for example , Nick Cohen in The Guardian, 9 May 1999). Shortly after the cease-fire, Mikhail Gorbachev wrote an article in The Guardian (18 June 1999) condemning the use of DU weapons in Kosovo and calling for them to be banned.
Yet NATO powers have until now been guilty of avoiding the issue. In July 1999 a UN team was sent in to investigate environmental damage in Kosovo. Despite their requests, it was not until the following spring that NATO passed on to the UN the details of 112 sites in Kosovo alone where DU shells were used and which it believes may be contaminated (The Guardian, 11 January).
However, another letter writer, AB Morris, in The Guardian noted on the same day that there must be DU-contaminated sites in Serbia proper too: "most of the Tomahawk cruise missiles contained approximately 3kg of depleted uranium and these weapons were used against all parts of Serbia—not just Kosovo."
"Never mind the locals"
Yet all this sudden attention on NATO forces has almost entirely failed to consider the effect on the local population living in the countries where the DU-tipped shells exploded. Apart from one or two passing references (such as the leading articles in The Independent on 6 January and The Guardian on 12 January), the press seemed almost entirely concerned with the dangers to which NATO servicemen might have been exposed. TV and radio coverage was, if anything, even worse.
It took a letter to The Guardian on 11 January from one Julian Pack, resident in Skopje, to crystallise the issue being avoided: "Never mind the soldiers, what about the millions of people that have to live here? Recently NATO soldiers held live firing exercises of depleted uranium rounds at the military training ground of Krivolak in central Macedonia. This follows the revelation that as bombs fell in Macedonia, unprotected Macedonian policemen investigated, whilst NATO soldiers turned up in protective suits. NATO must therefore have known of possible risks."
Certainly NATO troops who have been on peacekeeping duty in Kosovo since the conflict (and indeed those in Bosnia too) have reason to feel concerned. How much more worried should the local population then be? The Kosovo war was famously fought by NATO from 15,000 feet up in the air, from American A-10 "Warthog" tank-busters, or from warships in the Adriatic. The concerns of NATO soldiers are with regards to the period when ground troops were deployed in Kosovo after the 78-day bombing campaign ended.
British fair play?
The reason there has been such a political fuss now is that some new circumstantial evidence suggests there might have been harmful effects on NATO soldiers. Italian peacekeepers, who control the southwestern zone of Kosovo, where the greatest concentration of DU ammunition was fired, reported unusual levels of serious illness, including leukemia. Several European states have called for a ban or at least a major reassessment of these weapons. But this public outrage has not been generated by concern about the effects of the weapons over the past months and years on Serbs or Kosovars, or Bosnians or Iraqis for that matter.
This suggests some uncomfortable things about public and official attitudes towards civilian populations in these foreign countries. Why does our media not seem to care about them? Is it because we were at war and the Serbs were our enemies? What about the Kosovars and Bosnians whom we were supposed to be helping: is this poisoned legacy a price they must continue to pay for kicking the Serbs out? Or do we not really care about them either, at the end of the day? If this is the case, why did we go to war in 1999?
Much was made during the Kosovo conflict of America's apparent preference for inflicting higher civilian casualties through bombing from 15,000 feet rather than risk a single US pilot by flying lower. It was commented by some (mainly British) reporters that Britain, with its legendary sense of fair play, had a different concept of modern warfare and was uncomfortable with these tactics. That is not the message we have been given this week.
It was only at the week's end, on Saturday 13 January, that a major article appeared exploring the possible effects of DU weapons on local populations. "Up to 300 out of 5000 Serb refugees whose suburb of Sarajevo was heavily bombed by Nato jets in the late summer of 1995 have died of cancer," reported Robert Fisk from Bratunac in Bosnia, whence all the surviving Serb refugees from Hadjici had fled. These victims were not just military personnel, but civilians too.
This front-page piece in The Independent suggested there was overwhelming evidence of a connection between DU-tipped munitions and cancer levels, concluding: "it will be difficult for Nato to get away with this one."
Oliver Craske, 13 January 2001
- Archive of Oliver Craske's articles in CER
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Central and Eastern Europe through CER
- Return to CER front page