The United Nations has always been exploited by superpowers as a cover-up for political schemes.
While this obvious statement is not news, we have been witnessing another form of abuse, using certain United Nations specialized agencies as accomplices to environmental extermination. A few weeks ago, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson announced that the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) have both confirmed that there was no proven connection between leukemia and depleted uranium (DU), thus the shells used by NATO in Bosnia in 1995 and in Kosovo in 1999, and earlier in Iraq, were not particularly hazardous and did not represent an actual health threat.
The UN has not, as yet, denied Robertson’s statements, even though it is clear that at least a part of what he said was not true. UNEP had published a report in 1999 in which it requested that “highest priority should be given to finding pieces of depleted uranium and heavily contaminated surfaces, and measures should be taken for the secure storage of any contaminated material recovered.”
The report urged that measures be taken to prevent access to contaminated sites, and “local authorities and people concerned should be informed of the possible risks and precautionary measures.” Early laboratory results from 340 samples of DU found at sites targeted by NATO during the 1999 Kosovo conflict contain Uranium 236, which indicates that at least part of the material comes from reprocessed uranium.
It is hoped that the findings won’t be watered down by the time the final report is published in March. However, how could NATO interpret UNEP’s reports on the issue since 1999 as indicating that the remains of DU shells are not a health hazard?
The case of the World Health Organization, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter. The media quoted “experts affiliated with the WHO in Geneva” as being skeptical regarding whether or not DU shells used in the Balkans had actually caused cases of leukemia among NATO forces. However, those same experts had warned in an earlier and less publicized report that children playing in war zones where bombing had occurred could be in danger.
Yet for years the children of Bosnia and Kosovo, and the children of Iraq before them, have been using the remains of tanks and military vehicles destroyed by DU shells as toys, and demolished factories as playgrounds, while those are the most hazardous sites according to UNEP.
The dubious silence of WHO over NATO’s statements was interrupted by another ambiguous announcement from WHO headquarters in Geneva, saying that it was “unlikely that depleted-uranium ammunition used by NATO troops could have caused cancer.”
It further concluded that it was “unlikely” that exposure to NATO weapons containing DU “could have led to a higher risk of cancer among military personnel who served in the Balkan conflict.”
After this conclusion, which sounds like a bill of clean health to NATO, absolving it of responsibility for health hazards associated with DU, WHO announced that it was “planning a study to assess whether there has been an increased rate of cancer amongst military personnel who served in the Gulf War or Balkans.” It also called for the cordoning off and cleaning of sites in Kosovo where depleted-uranium ammunition landed during the NATO air campaign.
WHO’s ambiguous position on DU, however, seems to be typical for that organization. When Environment & Development magazine launched a campaign three years ago to ban the use of asbestos, some of those benefiting from the hazardous trade relied on a 1993 WHO report which stated that there was no proof that asbestos in drinking-water constitutes a health hazard to the digestive system, in order to justify using it in public water networks. Again, no one in the organization objected to this selective use of the report.
The organization’s report had refrained from saying that there was proof that asbestos does not harm the digestive system either, but purposely used ambiguity in the negative form. Those relying on WHO’s report to promote asbestos ignore the fact that the problem is not restricted to manufacturing, but also includes moving, cutting and then disposing of the pipes years later. All asbestos products, including asbestos cement, that are considered safe unless fibers are produced as a result of friction from drilling, scratching or breaking, will eventually reach the end of their life cycle.
Despite a pictures of children playing with fragments of asbestos pipes near water network construction sites, which Environment & Development published, no explanation was forthcoming from the WHO. Do they want to apply their assumption that asbestos is safe in drinking water by asking people to stop breathing and dilute asbestos fiber in water whenever they come across its remains in construction and dumping sites?
Do we blame NATO, which is a military organization with no claim to humanitarian interests, or an international organization, whose existence revolves around people’s health, when it provides, through its silence or intentional ambiguity of its reports, a suspicious cover-up for killing human beings?
Could the health authorities of the US Army have been more concerned for health than WHO, when it warned in 1992 of the possibility of being more susceptible to cancer after being exposed to DU shells? Another report by a medical specialist in the British Army had warned in 1996 that soldiers who had been exposed to dust from depleted-uranium shells may be susceptible to cancer, as the percentage of radiation around bombed vehicles could exceed, by eight times, the allowed average, which makes soldiers susceptible to lung cancer, brain cancer and leukemia.
Ironically, the recently leaked reports only warn of dangers to NATO soldiers! Is it a lucky strike to the environment and humanity that growing numbers of European soldiers are showing now what is being called “Balkan Syndrome,” and some of them died of leukemia and other strange diseases? If it hadn’t been for the attention given to those, the whole issue would have been swept under the ambiguous statements of WHO and NATO, similar to what happened after the outbreak of the “Gulf War Syndrome.”
What about thousands of children, and others in Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia, who died or are living ill with leukemia and a variety of cancers, assorted diseases and birth defects? What about the environmental destruction in these countries caused by depleted-uranium shells?
The United Nations Environment Program should take the initiative to ensure that the role of international organizations is to protect people and the environment, at least through clear and honest statements that cannot be used as a cover for oppressive military superpowers. UN agencies will, otherwise, lose any remaining credibility.
Najib Saab, editor in chief of Environment & Development magazine, wrote this commentary for The Daily Star (Lebanon).