After 40 years of increasing disquiet over depleted uranium (DU), the UK’s last operational DU tank munition – CHARM3 – is nearing the end of its shelf-life. DU weapons are chemically toxic and radioactive. Their use (especially in Iraq) generates a hazardous legacy that states recovering from conflict struggle to monitor and mitigate. CHARM3’s propellant charge expires in 2013 and the decision to renew or reject DU munitions may provide an opportunity for us in government.
Unlike the US and France, the UK has not upgraded its anti-tank ammunition in over a decade. This is due to the technical limitations of the current ammunition system. The Challenger 2 tank’s rifled gun relies on non-NATO standard bespoke ammunition – leaving the MoD unable to buy off the shelf, with serious implications for effective procurement.
Conscience of this, the MoD undertook trials which demonstrated superior performance from a NATO standard gun and Tungsten (non-DU) ammunition. The MoD says that this upgrade would also offer considerable cost savings.
Following the treaties banning anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions DU is expected to be the next controversial weapon subject to an international ban. The European Parliament has passed four resolutions on DU, the most recent of which in 2008 called for an immediate European moratorium on DU munitions and efforts towards a global treaty ban. Three UN General Assembly resolutions on the issue (2007, 2008, 2010) have garnered increasing support from many of the UK’s EU and NATO partners.
DU weapons have been banned in Costa Rica and Belgium and legislation is under development in Ireland and New Zealand. Campaigners argue that an international treaty ban on DU weapons would set a valuable precedent by synthesising elements of arms control and environmental law, encouraging the increased protection of human and environmental health during conflict.
Liberal Democrats and DU
Liberal Democrats who have been supportive of efforts to ban DU include; eight members of the All Party Group on Depleted Uranium, 22 and 17 MPs who signed EDM 825 and EDM 2318 respectively and all of our MEPs who voted for the EU 2008 resolution (which Liz Lynne MEP actually tabled on behalf of the ALDE). Within Westminster, supportive MPs include party president Tim Farron, former leaders Ming Campbell and Charles Kennedy, backbench co-spokesperson for Defence Martin Horwood and our member on the Defence Select committee Sir Bob Russell. As Shadow Defence Secretary, Nick Harvey tabled a number of parliamentary questions on the issues of civilian and service personnel health, and alternatives to DU weapons.
A strong position on DU would help differentiate the party from the Conservatives, creating a distinctive area of policy. Also notable is the political capital New Labour gained by signing the 1997 Convention on land-mines and the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions. Liberal Democrat support for a move away from DU would reflect growing international concern and provide an opportunity for significant political gains.
Martin ‘Lev’ Eakins was elected to Manchester City Council when he gained a seat off Labour in 2008. He also stood for parliament in Wythenshawe & Sale East in the 2010 general election.
* Lev Eakins is a former Manchester Councillor and parliamentary candidate who now lives in Sussex.