Depleted Uranium: A Review of its Properties, Potential Danger and Recent Use in Yugoslavia

Presented at the 1999 Independent Commission on War Crimes during the Bombing of Yugoslavia

The issue of depleted uranium (DU) has been a source of intense debate since it’s first major use in the Gulf War in 1991. While the governments of the United States and other “Allied Powers” steadfastly maintain that DU is safe enough to eat in small quantities, the public and especially those likely to have been exposed to DU such as Gulf War veterans and Iraqi civilians plagued with mysterious illnesses, have opposed this view with justified suspicion and reasonable claims. There is no clear answer to the suspicion that DU is hazardous substance. The largest obstacle to ending this debate is a lack of rigorous scientific testing and data analysis. As this paper is being written, new investigations and analyses are seriously tainting the claim that DU is a safe product. This paper introduces the reader to the origins and sources of DU, the potential internal damage that could be caused by DU, the use of DU in Iraq, current research findings, and the most recent use of DU weapons in Yugoslavia.


Table 1. Summary of Uranium Isotopes
Isotope Percent in natural uranium Percent in depleted uranium No. of Protons No. of Neutrons Half-Life (in years)
Uranium-238 99.284 99.800 92 146 4.46 billion
Uranium-235 0.711 0.199 92 143 704 million
Uranium-234 0.0055 0.0010 92 142 245,000

Based from Uranium: Its Uses and Hazards, May 9, 1996. Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, IEER

Uranium is a radioactive element found in trace quantities all over the earth and has many different forms or isotopes. Naturally occurring uranium is composed of three isotopes: 99% U238, 0.7% U235, and 0.005% U234 (see Table 1). In 1938, German physicists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann showed that the uranium atom could be split into parts to yield energy. Today, uranium is the principal fuel for nuclear reactors and the main raw material for nuclear weapons manufacturing. Used in the form of metallic uranium, or uranium dioxide (chemical symbol UO2), a large number of civilian and military nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons manufacturers require that the UO2 fuel be “enriched” prior to use, that is have a higher proportion of U235 present than in natural uranium. It is the process of uranium enrichment which results in byproducts, the bulk of which constitutes depleted uranium (DU). Hence DU is a form of uranium that is “depleted” of its U235 content. It consists of 99.8% U238 and 0.2% U235 and U234.

Figure 1. Depleted Uranium storage cylinders

A May 1999 report by Peter Diehl on DU as a by-product of nuclear fission says “Most of the depleted uranium produced to date is being stored as uranium hexafluoride (UF6) in steel cylinders in the open air in so-called cylinder yards located adjacent to the enrichment plants. The cylinders contain up to 12.7 tonnes of UF6. In the US alone, 560,000 metric tonnes of depleted UF6 have accumulated until 1993; they are currently stored in 46,422 cylinders. Meanwhile, their number has grown by another 8,000 new cylinders (see Figure 1).” While nuclear reactors, keep functioning ever-increasing quantities of waste DU pile up. Efforts to recycle DU have been taken up by various metallurgical laboratories in the United States. DU is an extremely dense metal, twice as dense as Lead (19.07 gms/cc). Its extreme hardness and density makes it an excellent candidate for objects such as airplane counter-weights and armor penetrating weapons such as high-energy ballistic projectiles.

Properties of Depleted Uranium

1. Radioactive Properties

Radioactive elements such as uranium decay by the emission of any or all of three kinds of radiation: alpha particle radiation, beta particle radiation, and gamma radiation. The time taken for a radioactive sample to decay to half its original amount is called the half life. DU is a mildly radioactive metal with an incredibly long half life of 4.46 billion years. It decays mainly by the emission of alpha and beta particles. (See Table 2 for a chart of all the stages of radioactive emission of DU, mostly U238, and the corresponding half lives of radioactive decay into the final stable product, lead). In fact, in terms of energy of radiation, DU is about half as radioactive as naturally occurring uranium. Additionally, alpha and beta particle radiation have very limited ranges of penetration and hence are not expected to cause very serious damage to living tissue via external exposure. However, it is the internal damage to tissue that makes DU a potentially extremely hazardous metal. In the following sections I will describe how DU can enter the human body and potentially cause damage.

Read from left to right. Arrows indicate decay.
Uranium-238 ==>
(half-life: 4.46 billion years)
alpha decay;
Thorium-234 ==>
(half-life: 24.1 days)
beta decay;
Protactinium-234 ==>
(half-life: 1.17 minutes)
beta decay;
Uranium-234 ==>
(half-life: 245,000 years)
alpha decay;
Thorium-230 ==>
(half-life: 75,400 years)
alpha decay;
Radium-226 ==>
(half-life: 1,600 years)
alpha decay;
Radon-222 ==>
(half-life: 3.82 days)
alpha decay
Polonium-218 ==>
(half-life: 3.11 minutes)
alpha decay
Lead-214 ==>
(half-life: 26.8 minutes)
beta decay;
Bismuth-214 ==>
(half-life: 19.9 minutes)
beta decay;
Polonium-214 ==>
(half-life: 163 microseconds)
alpha decay
Lead-210 ==>
(half-life: 22.3 years)
beta decay;
Bismuth-210 ==>
(half-life: 5.01 days)
beta decay
Polonium-210 ==>
(half-life: 138 days)
alpha decay

Taken from Uranium: Its Uses and Hazards, May 9, 1996. Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, IEER

2. Flammability and Aerosolizing

DU is a highly flammable metal. As a powder it is a pyrophore, which means that at temperatures in the range of 6-700 degrees Celsius, it can spontaneously ignite. At such high temperatures, easily reached during the impact of DU fortified bullet through armor plated tanks, DU will ignite, part of it combining with oxygen to form a series of complex oxides such as uranium dioxide (UO2), uranium trioxide (UO3), and triuranium octaoxide (U3O8). Any remaining particles of uranium will oxidize over time due to weathering (UNEP2). Particles of the resulting oxidized DU that are small enough to inhale (< 5 microns in size - AEPI) are also light enough to float and travel long distances via air currents: "This was discovered in 1979 by workers at the Knolls Atomic Laboratory north of Albany, New York. While investigating the National Lead Industries, reportedly fabricating DU penetrators for 30 mm canon rounds and airplane counter weights, they found DU contamination on their own air filters 42 kilometers from the factory (BERTELL1)." A 1999 study by the RAND Institute found that on average 10-35% (with a maximum of 70%) of a DU bullet becomes airborne or aerosol on impact or when the DU dust catches fire. The more rocky or stony the area of impact, the greater the extent that DU will be aerosolized (NELLIS).

Path of DU through the human body and potential damage to organs

Figure 3. Diagram comparing the penetration depths of different types of radioactive emission. Taken from No Immediate Danger, Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth, Dr. Rosalie Bertell, 1984 (BERTELL2).

Despite the fact that it is mildly radioactive, it is important to remember that while there is DU present inside the body it will emit alpha and beta particles along the way and the longer the organs and tissue are subject to this radiation, the greater the chance of developing any of several pathological complications such as metabolic disease, tumors, kidney disease, leukemia, immune deficiency etc. In her 1984 book, No Immediate Danger, Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth, Dr. Rosalie Bertell discusses the damage that alpha and beta particle radiation can cause (see Figure 3):
“Alpha particles can be stopped by human skin, but they may damage the skin in the process. Both alpha and beta particles penetrate cell membranes more easily than they penetrate skin. Hence ingesting, inhaling or absorbing radioactive chemicals capable of emitting alpha or beta particles and thereby placing them inside delicate body parts such as the lungs, heart, brain or kidneys, always poses serious threats to human health”.

As mentioned earlier DU radiates mostly alpha and beta particles, which have short penetration ranges in live tissue. Hence, being present in the vicinity of solid DU for a short time can mildly damage to the human body. However, the internal presence of DU has potential for great damage by radioactive emission, particularly if the DU stays internally lodged for considerable amounts of time. Figure 2 shows a schematic diagram of the various possible paths that DU can take within the body and cause problems.

Figure 2. A schematic view of the path of DU through the human body. Taken from RAND 1999.

One direct way in which DU directly enters the human body and can cause health hazards is from embedded shrapnel of DU fortified bullets. A simple X-ray can reveal the presence of DU fragments in the human body. In fact, in ‘friendly-fire incidents’ during the Gulf War, there were “at least twenty-two [US] veterans with DU shrapnel embedded in their bodies (NATION2).” Any sample of DU or naturally occurring uranium is partly soluble and partly insoluble. The soluble portions of the shrapnel can dissolve in the blood stream and then be transported to various organs. The insoluble portions of the DU will continue to radioactively decay and potentially damage surrounding tissue.

In addition to being hit by shrapnel, there are two important ways in which DU can enter the human body: ingestion and inhalation of aerosol DU particles. Via ingestion, insoluble DU particles will pass through the digestive and gastro-intestinal systems fairly quickly with a fairly low rate of absorption by the intestinal lining. They will then be egested in the feces. However, soluble DU particles have a higher rate of absorption and can linger in the human body for longer periods of time, irradiating tissue cells while they flow through the blood stream. While little is known about the actual internal effects of soluble DU particles, it is well known that naturally occurring soluble uranium is a chemical toxin, affecting the kidney and causing heavy metal poisoning. In fact, once ingested, soluble metals will in general be absorbed rapidly into the blood stream and eventually concentrate in various organs, for example, Iodine to the thyroid and Lead to the kidney and bone. Taking into account the potential internal damage by ingestion of DU, it should be noted that only about 0.05% of aerosol particles are usually absorbed by ingestion (AWTG).

The inhalation of DU particles raises the greatest health concerns and is the most likely link between internal tissue damage and an environment polluted with DU dust. When insoluble, or ceramic DU particles are inhaled, some will be exhaled out and some will be deposited within the lungs. To a some degree DU can reach the gastrointestinal system via inhalation too because “some of the uranium originally in the lungs ends up in the gastrointestinal tract as a result of mucociliary clearance from the respiratory tract and subsequent swallowing (RAND).” Once DU has entered a human body via ingestion or inhalation, it may initially be circulating in the blood stream or retained in the lung tissue, or both. If circulating in the blood stream a large portion of it will be excreted in the urine. The remainder will be deposited in the bone tissue and soft tissue organs such as the kidneys. Soluble DU in the lungs can enter the lymph nodes and the blood stream via absorption through lung tissue. Although it is unknown what percentage of inhaled air containing insoluble DU particles could be retained within the lung tissue, even a single DU particle that gets lodged in the lung will remain indefinitely. As the half life of DU (see Table 1) is extremely long, the lodged particle will irradiate the surrounding lung tissue continuously over time, decaying into its daughter products which include radon, an established cause of lung and other cancers.

War Time Use of Depleted Uranium

1. Proliferation of DU Weapons

Several countries including the United States, Britain, and France have DU fortified weapons in their arsenals. Additionally, “Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the Pentagon has already sold the radioactive ammunition to Thailand, Taiwan, Bahrain, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Korea, Turkey, Kuwait and other countries which the Pentagon will not disclose for national security reasons. (NATION2)”.

Figure 4. Armor penetrating round used by the US A-10 Warthog attack planes. Taken from UNEP Report, Oct 1999.
The primary weapons employing DU are A10 seven-barrel battling guns manufactured by General Electric which can fire 3900 rounds of ammunition a minute. Each bullet (see Figure 4) contains a conical DU penetrator (UNEP2). These bullets can penetrate armor so efficiently that they render ground troops in armor plated tanks virtually defenseless. While the long and short term health risks associated with the aerosol DU dust left behind have not been conclusively assessed, the US military use of DU weapons in international conflicts continues.

2. DU in the Gulf War

Their low cost and extreme effectiveness at penetrating armor plated tanks have made DU fortified bullets one of the US army’s most valuable weapons. While federal regulations dictate strict terms under which DU is to be safeguarded in storage within the United States, the use of this radioactive waste product on the battle field remains unrestricted. According to the Ministry of Defense, the first military use of DU was in 1991 in Iraq during the Gulf War.” US planes and tanks fired 860 000 rounds of ammunition containing 290 tonnes of DU. British tanks fired 100 rounds containing less than 1 tonne of DU (NEWSCI).” In the immediate aftermath of the war Preventative Medicine Command health physicist, Doug Rokke and his team were charged with the “clean up” of battlefields in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, littered with rounds of DU bullets. Rokke’s team was never informed of the possible health risks associated with DU, nor did they ever receive any special training or protective gear to handle the bullets containing DU. In fact, “within two weeks of his return from duty in the Middle East, Rokke and the other members of his DU assessment team began developing health problems (MJONES1).” While some of his team members have died, Rokke himself suffers from what is now called Gulf War Syndrome, a set of inexplicable immune system and tumor afflictions affecting a large number of US Army veterans of the Gulf War.

A January 1999 San Fransisco Examiner article explains that “the Pentagon over the years has steadily increased the number of vets exposed to DU during the Gulf War. In 1993, the estimate was 35, but by 1998 when the Pentagon, under pressure, unveiled a map of the Gulf War battlefield, the new estimate was thousands.” Increasing pressure on the Pentagon from Veterans groups, environmental, and anti-nuclear weapons activist groups around the country has had limited success in addressing the deplorable health status of veteran soldiers. While the lack of definitive research makes a pronouncement on DU’s health risks elusive, some constructive steps such as conferences, publications, independent testing and research on DU and connections to Gulf War Syndrome have been taken. For example, a December 1998 Conference on Health and Environmental Consequences of Depleted Uranium” paper shows increasing registration of different types of cancer cases and change in the epidemiological pattern of there occurrence with time among military personnel who were in the southern region of Iraq during the war.” According to them “there is a significant correlation and association between these cases and DU exposure.” Additionally, a March 1994 article in the Nation Magazine reported that the Veterans Administration “conducted a state-wide survey of 251 Gulf War veterans families in Mississippi. Of their children conceived and born since the war, 67% have illnesses rated severe or have missing eyes, missing ears, blood infections, respiratory problems and fused fingers.” This alarming rate of birth defects suggests that soldiers were exposed to some kind of toxin during the war.

In addition to Gulf War Veterans, the population of millions of Iraqis now living near areas riddled with DU fortified bullets, are at an even greater risk. With no more clean up of spent DU rounds or DU dust scheduled, Iraqis face the possibility of exposure to DU on a daily basis. As summarized in the previous section, aerosol particles of DU can theoretically travel large distances and be inhaled and deposited into the lungs where irreparable damage can occur as a result of radioactive emission. Cases of birth deformities as a result of genetic defects, and cancer are showing alarming elevations in the civilian population of Iraq. “The occurrences of cancer were recorded in four hospitals and/ or medical centers … in Mosul city from August 1989 to March 1990. The same work was repeated in the same hospitals and medical centers during August 1997 to March 1998. Type of cancer, sex of patients, and type of therapy was studied. The two most prevalent types of cancer diseases were also examined and statistically analyzed. The frequency of incidence of cancer diseases … [such as] lung, leukemia, breast, skin, lymphoma and liver cancers elevated 5-fold after the war. The elevation in these could be due to the depleted uranium weapons used by the allied forces against Iraqi troops and citizens (CHEC).” Also, in Basra alone, the Iraqi province south of the battlefields where DU bullets were fired, leukemia rates have risen by 56%, according to a study by Dr. Muna Elhassani of the Iraqi Cancer Registry.

The similarities in the symptoms between Gulf War veterans and Iraqi civilians strongly suggests a common origin of the afflictions. In addition to DU, some have suggested experimental vaccines, chemical warfare pills, as well as smoke from oil well fires as being responsible (NATION1). However, the radioactive nature of DU, mild as it may be, is theoretically the most likely cause of the types of diseases that have developed. Only rigorous scientific research can rule out or confirm its effects.

3. Research on the effects of DU Exposure in the Gulf War

In a response to pressure by activist and veteran groups, the US government initiated “A Review of the Scientific Literature As It Pertains to Gulf War Illnesses” by the RAND Institution. Although RAND professes to be a private non-profit organization, it is important to note their affiliation with the defense industry in the United States. For example, a title in their publication list includes “The Cutting Edge, A Half Century of US Fighter Aircraft R&D: A Government-Industry Partnership” and a major research area at RAND is defense planning and operations. The RAND report on DU, although mostly scientific in its approach, fails to address the issue of exposure to insoluble DU particles which can become trapped inside the lungs upon inhalation and stay lodged for years, irradiating the surrounding tissue. A dismissive statement in the report is reflective of their approach to the controversial link between DU and Gulf War Syndrome : “insoluble compounds, such as oxides are more toxic to the lung because their longer residence in the lung produces a larger radiation dose. As previously discussed, many of these compounds are laboratory reagents and industrial chemicals and are absent from the military environment. As such, they are not relevant to the discussion of health effects related to the military use of DU.” This blanket statement does injustice to the scientific literature on the aerosolizing of DU upon impact and ignition and thereby ignores one of the most important ways in which DU can cause damage inside the human body.

Another aspect of DU contamination which was not properly addressed by the RAND report was the adverse effect of embedded DU fragments inside the body. The potential mutagenic effects of DU are unknown and so the Applied Cellular Radiobiology Department of the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute began carrying out experiments on rats implanted with DU fragments. The urine and serum of these rats and control rats implanted with inert metal were tested for “mutagenic potential”. Preliminary results showed that “In depleted uranium-implanted animals, urine mutagenicity increased in a dose- and time-dependent manner demonstrating a strong positive correlation with urine uranium levels” (Medline inquiry, 1998). However, a more recent study by researchers at the Veteran Administration Hospital in Baltimore, published in the Health Physics Journal in November 1999 contends that there are no adverse outcomes from radioactive shrapnel embedded inside a human body. The study carried out tests on the urine samples of veterans with embedded DU shrapnel using “a laser induced phosphorescence analysis for total uranium”. Dr. Rosalie Bertell observes that in the Baltimore study “no attempt was made to do an isotopic breakdown of the uranium. There is no indication whether the excluded samples were from vets with or without shrapnel on X-ray. Those with shrapnel had very small pieces, most less than 1 millimeter scattered throughout muscle. There were a few pieces of shrapnel as large as 20 millimeter.” It is clear that a more rigorous analysis of uranium in urine samples is needed. At present there is no well established connection between embedded DU shrapnel and uranium contaminated urine or any physiological symptoms.

In addition to the controversy surrounding DU shrapnel, no well-accepted evidence exists on the effects of inhaled or ingested DU particles. The pronouncement of the RAND report that the “the body is very effective at eliminating ingested and inhaled natural uranium” and hence exposure to DU particles does not result in adverse health effects, has not encouraged any steps toward a moratorium on the use of DU fortified weapons. However, aside from government sponsored research, various independent research programs have recently tackled the issue of DU aerosol inhalation or ingestion. Among them are Dr. Hari Sharma’s study of British Gulf War veterans. Dr. Sharma is a professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and his approach of direct testing of urine samples from veterans show results that are startlingly incriminating of DU. He found “traces of DU in the urine of 14 out of 30 British veterans” (KIRBY). Critics of Dr. Sharma’s work have claimed a lack of scientific rigor in his methods. However, another independent study by geochemist Patricia Horan supports Sharma’s results. Horan used a technique that “is said to achieve results between 50,000 and 500,000 times more accurate than Dr Sharma’s” (KIRBY). Her mass spectrometer analysis of the urine of Veterans also showed that eight years after the use of DU bullets in the Gulf War, veteran soldiers were still passing DU in their urine, pointing to an anomalously high DU exposure during the Gulf War.

An overall complication associated with this research is the difficulty of doing an isotopic separation between naturally occurring uranium and DU is necessary in order to accurately determine DU exposure. Since naturally occurring uranium is all around us, measuring total uranium levels is not conclusive evidence of the presence of DU. A new research approach which looks promising is the method of neutron activation analysis adopted by Miriam Ripley, a Uranium Medical Project Coordinator. This method discriminates between naturally occurring and depleted uranium (presented at the Conference on Low Level Radiation sponsored by the New York Academy of Medicine and the STAR Foundation, February 1999). The project is in its preliminary stages and can hopefully lead to an end to the controversy over DU in urine samples.

At the theoretical level, research on how aerosol DU particles could enter and damage the human body, are being spearheaded by physicist Dr. Leonard Dietz. Dr. Dietz has developed a physical model of exposure to DU based on a biokinetic model developed by the International Commission on Radiation Protection (ICRP) that describes the behavior of uranium within the human body by accounting for aerosol particle size, the chemical forms of the particles, and excretion rates of absorbed uranium. The model points out that large numbers of Gulf War veterans could have been exposed to aerosol DU particles in Iraq (IAC).

Figure 5. A faxed memorandum from Lt. Col Ziehmn to Doug Rokke in 1991 expressing his stance on DU weapons used in the Gulf War

It is difficult to do a complete review of all the research being carried out independently on the subject of DU. Despite the potential health hazards of DU highlighted by the flurry of studies in the past and present, no action has been taken by any of the governments of the Allied powers to halt the use of DU munitions in war time. The reasons for this are probably best expressed in a faxed memo from Lt. Colonel Ziehmn of Los Alamos National Laboratory (a federally funded laboratory) to Doug Rokke in 1991 (see Figure 5) which states that “There has been and continues to be a concern regarding the impact of DU on the environment. Therefore if no one makes a case for the effectiveness of DU on the battlefield, DU rounds may become politically unacceptable … If DU penetrators proved their worth during our recent combat activities, then we should assure their future existence (until something better is developed) through Service/DoD proponency.” In the mean time hundreds of Gulf War Veterans and thousands of Iraqis continue to suffer from immune system disorders, cancers, birth defects and other inexplicable symptoms such as fatigue, memory loss, nausea, etc. In reality, there are no widely accepted reasons for the afflictions and yet, there is no conclusive research to rule out exposure to DU aerosol as the source of these physiological disorders. It seems that DU bullets have indeed proven their worth by destroying tanks so efficiently and being produced at such low cost that they were employed with enthusiasm during the next military undertaking of the US, namely the war against Yugoslavia in 1999.

4. The use of DU Weapons in Yugoslavia

In spring of 1999 the United States along with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) carried out a brutal 78 day bombing campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia over the issue of alleged “ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo by Serbian military forces. During the bombing the use of DU munitions was strongly suspected and first brought to notice on April 1 1999 in a bulletin by the International Action Center in New York, an activist group opposed to DU weapons. In a Washington press briefing during the bombing Major General Charles Wald, vice-director for strategic plans and policy for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, specified that A10 Warthog aircraft had fired DU munitions against Serbian forces. This was eventually supported by the “Pentagon [who] has confirmed that it used DU in Kosovo. It has also confirmed it has no plans to clean it up.”(MJONES1). In addition to the A10 battling guns, AV-8 Harriers and Abrams battle tanks in the Balkans also carried DU munitions (NEWSCI).

Despite the verbal confirmations to news media of the deployment of DU weapons, there has been no official written acknowledgement of the extent of DU weapons use in Yugoslavia by the US government or NATO. A recently published United Nations report makes an estimate however: “by taking into account the number of sorties the A-10 Warthogs (the planes firing the DU bullets, according to the Pentagon) were flying per day, the estimated percentage of those sorties which actually fired DU rounds, and the number of rounds their guns hold, it is possible to arrive at an estimate. According to John Pike, a well-respected defense analyst with the Federation of American Scientists ‘one could reasonably assume that we have fired at least 10,000 of [DU] rounds (UNEP2).” This estimate, although almost 100 times less than the amount of DU fired in the Gulf War, is likely cause for great concern. Even the Ministry of Defense thinks so, warning their “personnel in Kosovo … to stay clear of areas which have been affected by depleted uranium weapons unless they are wearing full radiological protective clothing (HERALD).” All returning refugees in Yugoslavia were issued no such warning.

To date NATO and the US have refused to reveal information of exactly how much DU was used and exactly where it was used. The UNEP Balkans Task Force program to assess the environmental damage to Yugoslavia carried out an investigation using soil and water testing in areas that were suspected to be contaminated with DU. No widespread DU contamination was found. However, the radiation measurement and sampling was not systematically performed and this was admitted to be the most serious drawback of the UNEP study. The report does make the recommendation that places where localized contamination has been confirmed, should be subject to restricted access and local residents warned of the potential hazards. The lack of information from NATO about the sites of DU weapons deployment was stressed as being the largest obstacle to assessing dangers of DU exposure to the civilian population.

The present situation in Yugoslavia can perhaps be best summarized in the words of Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), “NATO has undertaken actions that could put large numbers of people at risk in Yugoslavia as well as in other countries. It is imperative that NATO provide a full accounting of why these plants were bombed, and what assessments have been undertaken of their direct and indirect consequences for present and future generations.” If indeed the estimate of 10000 DU rounds fired is accurate or even a lower limit, and if the rounds were those that were mostly deployed for the purpose of damaging civilian infrastructure, then it is plausible to say that civilians in Yugoslavia are at risk of potentially hazardous exposure to DU.


DU is a mildly radioactive combination of uranium isotopes and is stored in large amounts as radioactive waste from nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons manufacturing plants. Its high density and ease of availability have made it a valuable ingredient in “tank-busting” weapons used by mainly the US government. DU has much greater potential for causing damage to humans internally than externally. Its pyrophyric properties cause a fraction of it to ignite and form DU oxide particles of respirable size that are easily airborne. In addition to DU shrapnel embedded in the body as a result of a direct or peripheral hit, DU aerosol particles can enter the body via ingestion and/or inhalation. Once in the body, a small portion of the soluble DU can enter the blood stream and collect in soft organs, muscles and bone while some insoluble DU can be retained in the lungs, passing to the lymph nodes, irradiating the surrounding tissue indefinitely.

Despite its potential to cause internal damage in humans, DU weapons were used for the first time in the Gulf War in Iraq and Kuwait, and more recently in Yugoslavia. In the 8 years following the Gulf War, veteran soldiers have been plagued with a series of inexplicable physiological symptoms such as fatigue, memory loss, weight loss, etc, as well as cancers such as leukemia and lung cancer, and an alarming rate of birth defects in their children born after 1991. Very similar symptoms have been discovered in Iraqi civilian populations. The Iraqi landscape bombarded with DU bullets in 1991 remains contaminated with no future plans for cleanup by the Allied Powers.

While there is no widely accepted cause-and-effect relation between exposure to DU and the development of what is now called “Gulf War Syndrome”, a significant body of research, some Government motivated, some independent, now exists on the potential hazards of DU. There is no conclusive evidence to either implicate or rule out DU. However, urine analysis of Gulf War veterans by independent researchers Dr. Hari Sharma and Patricia Horan, strongly suggest that military personnel in Iraq were subject to large doses of DU.

Instead of exercising caution with respect to DU weapons, the US army deployed A10 battle guns which use DU fortified bullets in Yugoslavia during its 78-day bombing campaign in early 1999. The use of DU has been confirmed by the Pentagon. However, the Pentagon refuses to provide any information about the the total number of rounds fired or sites at which they were fired. As a result the UNEP program was unable to determine the extent to which the civilian population were being exposed to the radioactive metal. Estimates put the number of DU rounds used at about 10000, which, if true, and if fired within populated areas, could pose a significant risk of exposure to civilians.


The controversy surrounding DU is one whose end is far overdue in light of the serious physiological effects on people suffering from Gulf War Syndrome in the US and Iraq. With respect to Yugoslavs living near sites of DU contamination, a quick conclusion can help address problems before they become serious: a finding that indeed exposure to DU results in Gulf War Syndrome can initiate an immediate clean up of Yugoslav sites that are contaminated with DU. Conversely, a finding that there is no link between DU and immunological and cancerous disease will allow attention and resources to be diverted to any other possibly responsible toxins. I therefore recommend that:

  • Scientific peer reviewed research on the extent of exposure to DU dust and the internal damage directly resulting from any internally retained DU is imperative to ending the debate over DU is imperative.
  • A complete disclosure by the US and NATO must be made of all the sites that DU bullets were fired at and the total number of DU rounds fired which will enable the UNEP Balkans Task Force to thoroughly investigate the sites in question and proceed accordingly with a civilian evacuation and cleanup.
  • An immediate testing must be carried out on urine samples of all Gulf War veterans and a continuous monitoring of uranium levels measured. Additionally, it is imperative that the newly proposed method of neutron activation measurement be pursued to strengthen such a study by being able to distinguish between naturally and depleted uranium levels in urine samples.
  • An immediate and comprehensive ban on DU munitions of any form and foreign sales of DU munitions must be imposed by the US, NATO and any other country possessing the weapons, until and unless it has been scientifically and conclusively proven that DU is entirely harmless.
  • A complete cleanup of all spent DU rounds in Iraq and Yugoslavia. Although far more expensive to perform, a complete cleanup of DU aerosols in the environments of the two countries in light of the strong possibility that DU dust ingestion and inhalation can cause significant internal damage.
  • A contingency plan for addressing health concerns of Yugoslavs who may develop similar symptoms to Gulf War Syndrome in the near future.


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  • AEPI: Health and Environmental Consequences of Depleted Uranium Use by the U.S. Army, U.S. AEPI (Army Environmental Policy Institute) Technical Report, June 1995
  • AWTG: Atomic Weapons Training Group, “Basic Health Physics”, Field Command, DASA, Sandia Base, Albuquerque, Dec 1965.
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  • BERTELL2: No Immediate Danger, Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth, Dr. Rosalie Bertell, 1985.
  • CHEC: Conference on Health and Environmental Consequences of Depleted Uranium used by U.S. and British forces in the 1991 Gulf War, Baghdad Iraq, December 1998.
  • DIEHL: Depleted Uranium: a by-product of the Nuclear Chain, Peter Diehl, Laka Foundation (, May 1999.
  • HERALD: Depleted uranium warning only issued to MoD staff, Felicity Arbuthnot, Sunday Herald, Aug 1999.
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  • ICRP: International Commission on Radiation Protection Publication 54, book, Individual Monitoring for Intakes of Radionuclides by Workers: Design and Interpretation, Pergamon Press, 1988.
  • IEER: Uranium: Its Uses and Hazards, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, May 1996.
  • KIRBY: Depleted uranium study ‘shows clear damage’, Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby, Aug 1999.
  • MILTOX: Environmental Assessment of Depleted Uranium, Military Toxics Project (, 1999
  • MJONES1: Depleted Uranium: The Invisible Threat, Mother Jones Magazine, June 1999.
  • MJONES2: Hot Shot Uranium, Mother Jones Magazine, January 1999
  • MORGAN: Hazards of Low-Level Radiation, Morgan, K. Z., Yearbook of Science and the Future, Supplement of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1980.
  • NATION1: Mal de Guerre, Flanders, L., The Nation Magazine, March 1994.
  • NATION2: The Pentagon’s Radioactive Bullet, Bill Mesler, The Nation Magazine, Dec, 1998.
  • NELLIS: Resumption of Use of Depleted Uranium Rounds at Nellis Air Force Range, Target 63-10, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Nebraska, June 1997.
  • NEWSCI: Too Hot to Handle, Rob Edwards, New Scientist, June 1999.
  • OBUS: It Is Not Depleted Uranium, Max Obuszewski, Baltimore Chronicle (”), Feb 1999.
  • RAND: A Review of the Scientific Literature as it Pertains to Gulf War Illnesses, Harley, N. H., Foulkes, E. C., Hilborne, L. H., Hudson, A., Anthony, C. R., RAND ( 1999.
  • RCHDU: Radiological and Chemical Hazards of Depleted Uranium, Defense Radiological Protection Service Report (, July 1993.
  • SULLIVAN: Gulf War map a clue to vet ills?, Kathleen Sullivan, San Fransisco Examiner, Jan 1999.
  • WRRI: Modeling Erosion and Transport of Depleted Uranium, Yuma, Proving Ground, Ward, T.J.& Stevens, K.A., Arizona, WRRI Report No. 286 (New Mexico Resources Research Institute) (, June 1994.
  • UNEP1: The Kosovo Conflict: Consequences for the Environment and Human Settlements, UNEP/UNCHA BTF Final Report (, 1999
  • UNEP2: The Potential Effects on Human Health and the Environment Arising From Possible Use of Depleted Uranium During the 1999 Kosovo Conflict: A Preliminary Assessment, United Nations Environmental Program(UNEP)/UNCHA Balkans Task Force (, October 1999.

International Law and the Rogue Superpower: The Bombing of Kosovo

Presented at the 1999 Independent Commission on War Crimes during the Bombing of Yugoslavia

The notion that humanitarian violations can be redressed with random destruction and killing by advanced technological means is inherently suspect. This is mere pretext for our arrogant assertion of dominance and power in defiance of international law.

-Walter J. Rockler, a Washington lawyer who was also a prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial (letter to the Chicago Tribune, 23 May 1999).

I advocate world government because I am convinced that there is no other possible way of eliminating the most terrible danger in which man has ever found himself. The objective of avoiding total destruction must have priority over any other objective.

-Albert Einstein, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, February 1948

International Law

What is international law? Should people interested in a just society care about it? Defining international law is in theory easy: “International law consists of rules and principles which govern the relations and dealings of nations with each other.”1 In practice, however, things may be different. Some, such as Robert Harris, an adviser to Margaret Thatcher, believe that questions of international law “are essentially frivolous…International law is essentially at any time what the states say it is.”2 Clearly Harris does not mean all states, since such a system would not be “frivolous.” Implicit in his statement is that international law is what powerful states allow. This cynical notion avoids the real issues. In my belief, international law provides a set of constraints on powerful states, which exist to ensure that they are held morally responsible for their actions. The framework of international law is not always respected, nor is it even enforceable for the most powerful states. It does, however, require states to justify themselves; at the very least the framework provides a basis for critical analysis of the actions of states. Using the meager democratic structures which exist, as well as the media, such critical analysis can lead to movements for revolutionary change.

Discussions of the applicability of international law to a particular case traditionally refer to the conflict between the “ideals” espoused in a law or treaty; and the notion of “sovereignty” which says that ideals cannot be enforced by countries if violations occur within the border of a single country. I will review the particular case of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and show that, though the media made frequent mention of this ideological conflict, most analysts missed the point. They focused on a narrow definition of sovereignty meaning “immunity within borders under all circumstances.” In doing so they failed to see the true ideological conflict, that between international law being what powerful states desire and international law as a set of rules for due process, as well as critique.

Any doubt that humanitarian ideals were a pretext for shattering the framework of international law are dispelled when one examines NATO’s bombing campaign in practice. I will show that, not only was the decision to bomb a complete abrogation of international treaties, considered the “supreme Law of the Land” by the US Constitution. NATO is in fact guilty of the worst international offense, war crimes.

Human Rights vs Sovereignty in Kosovo

The March – June 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia was, according to mainstream foreign policy analysts, a test of the principle of “new humanitarianism.” The Western powers finally used force “on behalf of universal values instead of the narrower national interests for which sovereign states traditionally fought…”3 Indeed, many retrospective accounts cast the decision to bomb as the resolution of the conflict between the separate values of human rights and sovereignty. On the one hand, NATO desired to “save lives,” but on the other, the situation in Kosovo was an internal affair of Yugoslavia, whose sovereignty should not be interfered with. According to this view, in deciding to bomb, NATO decided allegedly to consider human rights above sovereignty: “Fifty-four years after the Holocaust…, America and Europe had finally said `enough’ .”4 “America…has long been an agressive promoter of human rights…whose national identity derives more from a `value-driven agenda’ than from traditional notions”5 such as sovereignty. In a New York Times Magazine article entitled, Our Humanity vs. Their Sovereignty, Max Frankel writes, “scenes of huddled masses burned out of their homes and driven into exile aroused our sympathy and overrode all obligations to respect Serbia’s sovereignty.”6 This view is at best only partly true, and reflects a dangerous new double standard on the part of powerful states in the interpretation of international laws.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The most basic international standards of human rights are encapsulated in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has been split into the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (hereafter CPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (hereafter ESC). These conventions deal with the treatment of citizens by their own governments. The United States has ratified the CPR, which upholds citizens’ liberties such as freedom of expression and freedom from persecution and torture; but it has not ratified the ESC, which includes what are often considered the more basic rights7 of subsistence such as the right to a minimal standard of living, the right to work, and fair wages.

According to supporters of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, the government of Serbia was violating the CPR rights in its treatment of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, and this could not be tolerated. If we assume this was true (a case can certainly be made for this, although the scope of violations is now admitted to be far less serious than initially alleged) how should the US deal with such violations? Looking at the historical record we find that “agressive promoters of human rights” like the United States, when confronted with human rights violations, have often reacted differently than they have with respect to Kosovo. Some violations such as those in East Timor, Colombia, and Turkey, all of which are much worse in scope than those in Kosovo, are committed by allies of the US (Turkey is a fellow member of NATO). In these cases, the US has “reacted” with weapons sales and monetary aid, enabling the atrocities to continue. This reveals the first double standard: not all human rights violators are targets of a “value-driven agenda”. Based on this fact alone, independent military action by the US or NATO to suppress human rights violations is highly suspect.

The United Nations Charter

The primary vessel for international law in the current epoch is the Charter of the United Nations. The Charter invokes the principle of sovereignty in Article 2 as follows: “The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members,” and “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” If a state is commiting an internationally recognized crime within its borders, the Charter says, “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter.” It is this principle which supposedly caused NATO to debate the legality of bombing Yugoslavia.

The NATO leaders and the mass media misled the public, however, by focusing much of the debate on the idea of “sovereignty.” In doing so, they ignored the rest of the UN Charter, including the end of Article 2 on sovereignty, which holds, “…this principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter Vll.” In the words of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, “What the Charter does say is that `armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest.'”8 Or, as international law scholar Olivier Corten of the Free University of Brussels emphasizes, sovereignty brings obligations as well as benefits. “All states have formally agreed that they should respect fundamental rights, such as…respect for the physical person…They decided in a `sovereign manner’ to respect these principles, so they must respect them in a sovereign manner too.”9

The UN Charter does not deal solely with cross-border crimes and ignore crimes happening inside borders, as NATO policy makers would have us believe. On the contrary, the Charter does provide a mechanism for dealing with humanitarian problems such as the maltreatment of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Article 1 defines two of the main purposes of the United Nations to be “to maintain international peace and security,” and “to achieve cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights…” To promote these ideals, the Charter relegates to the UN Security Council the responsibility to “investigate any dispute, or any situation which might lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute, in order to determine whether the continuance of the dispute or situation is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security” (Article 34, UN). In other words, one who would criticize the internal policies of another state needs to prove before the Security Council that the state is infringing upon the “common interest.”

The International Criminal Court

Assuming the Security Council determines that a state is guilty of egregious human rights violations, such as those defined in the CPR, then the UN Charter urges that “legal disputes should as a general rule be referred by the parties to the International Court of Justice” (Article 36, UN). So the Charter does allow for criminal proceedings against suspected human rights violators, even when those violations occur within the borders of a country. The US has already provided key support for international tribunals for Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Cambodia. In fact, each of these international tribunals are mainly involved in gathering evidence for and prosecuting crimes which occurred within the borders of a single state. These tribunals naturally are not cautious about eroding the sovereignty of Yugoslavia, Rwanda, or Cambodia. Why didn’t the US and NATO refer their dispute with the Serbian government directly to the court responsible for crimes in Yugoslavia?

We man learn something by looking at the record of the United States with respect to International Courts. Most recently, the United States has been opposing most of the rest of the world by refusing to sign the treaty establishing an International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague.10 This reveals the second double-standard. “America clearly believes in building a system of international justice,” The Economist laments, “but on one vital condition: that any such system does not apply to America itself..Such an absolutist version of sovereignty is rapidly becoming an anachronism.”11

According to advocates of bombing (quoted above), sovereignty was important but not as important as human rights, so NATO could defy the inviolability of Serbia’s border to “save” Albanians. At the same time, the US has rejected an international criminal court with universal jurisdiction, on grounds that it would interfere with US sovereignty! Perhaps international rules of sovereignty were never a real concern for NATO policy makers. Rather, this was a convenient ruse to sidestep discussion of due process of international law, which includes bringing disputes to the ICC under the recommendation of the Security Council.

The UN Security Council

Under the UN Charter, the Security Council is the international body responsible for maintaining international peace and security.12 According to the Charter, any state convinced of the necessity of intervening in the affairs of another state must follow the due process of international law. Namely, “If the Security Council deems that the continuance of the dispute is in fact likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security, it shall decide whether to take action” (Article 37, UN). Furthermore, “the Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken…to maintain or restore international peace and security” (Article 39, UN). NATO openly disregarded this in deciding to bomb Yugoslavia. Even the charter of NATO itself, the North Atlantic Treaty, explicitly gives the UN Charter precedence: “The Parties untertake, as set forth in the Charter of the United Nations, to settle any international dispute…by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered, and to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations” (Article 1, NATO). Moreover, the North Atlantic Treaty maintains that the UN Security Council is to decide on matters of peace and security (see Article 7, NATO). The UN Charter clearly agrees with this: “ enforcement action shall be taken under regional arrangements or by regional agencies [such as NATO] without the authorization of the Security Council.” (Article 53, UN).

The Decision to Bomb Yugoslavia

Why did NATO really decide to bomb Yugoslavia? In the journal Foreign Affairs, Michael Mandelbaum ponders the reasons for and results of NATO’s war against Yugoslavia. He concludes, “The humanitarian goal NATO sought — the prevention of suffering — was not achieved by the bombing.” In fact, “NATO never even attempted what was announced to be the purpose of going to war in the first place: the protection of the Kosovar Albanians.”13 Mandelbaum also admits that the decision by NATO to bomb Yugoslavia was illegal according to the UN Charter. Others have argued convincingly that most of the Serbian concessions to NATO after the war could have been obtained without violence.14 So why, then, did Secretary of State Albright describe the bombing of Kosovo as “simply the most important thing we have done in the world”15? Sharing this perspective is Morton Halperin, head planner for the US State Department, who “says the continued willingness of countries to intervene in humanitarian crises shows that `the rules and procedures of the new world order are growing…'”16 What does Halperin mean by “willingness to intervene” and “the rules of the new world order”?

Recall that a country claiming to be an “aggressive promoter of human rights” does not even council its allies against committing horrible human rights violations, but instead furthers their capacity for doing so. I surmise that the phrase “humanitarian crises” means “situations in which humanitarian concerns can be used by powerful states to intervene forcibly.” Moreover, since it is not just the “obligations to respect sovereignty” which hamper intervention, but all of international law, Halperin’s “rules of new world order” must include the right to violent intervention by powerful countries no longer constrained by treaties. It is true that powerful states have always given themselves the prerogative to act as they please in international affairs, but rarely so openly. As put by Oxford don Michael Byers, “NATO is making it much more easier for other states to intervene in the future.”17 The precedent made here was not that of humanitarian values overcoming the sanctity of borders, but rather of “the right to intervene” overcoming in public discourse the obeisance to international law.

This precedent is extremely dangerous, because NATO is openly admitting that in international relations there are no rules, save for those defined by the powerful, in accord with the views of Robert Harris (note 2). The implications of this are described by Harvard University Professor Samuel Huntington: “While the United States regularly denounces various countries as `rogue states,’ in the eyes of many countries it is becoming the rogue superpower.”18 The consequences of defying the Charters of the UN and NATO in deciding to bomb Yugoslavia have serious ramifications for the exercise of international law in the future.

In promoting a state of international anarchy in which it is the
“rogue superpower,” the US has violated the most basic principles for
which it allegedly stands (see Table 1). The United States
Constitution holds that “This Constitution…and all Treaties made, or
which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall
be the supreme Law of the Land [my emphasis]; and the Judges in every
State shall be bound thereby…” (Article VI, USCon). The UN Charter
is a treaty and thus should be treated as the “supreme Law of the
Land.” In addition, the US has signed the Vienna Convention on the
Law of Treaties (entered into force in 1980), which lays out
international rules for the observance of treaties. In particular,
“Every treaty in force is binding upon the parties to it and must be
performed by them in good faith.” (Article 26, Vienna).

Table 1. Laws which require that the United States adhere to International Treaties


Relevant Text

United States Constitution “This Constitution … and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authorityof the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby…”
(Article VI)
Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties “Every treaty in force is binding upon the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith.”  (Article 26)

“A party may not invoke the provisions of its internal law as justification for its failure to perform a treaty.”  (Article 27)

Principles of International Law Recognized in the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal and in the Judgment of the Tribunall  “Any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefor and liable to punishment.”  (Principle I)

“Planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties…” constitutes a Crime Against Peace (Principle VI a)

What happens when a treaty is violated? The Nuremberg trials of the Nazi war criminals set the precedent for the responsibility of individuals to respect international law: “Any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefor and liable to punishment” (Principle I, Nuremberg). In the case of waging war in violation of treaty obligations, the Nuremberg Judgement is explicit: “Planning, preparation, initiation or waging a war of agression or a war in violation of international treaties…” is considered a “Crime against Peace” (Principle VI a, Nuremberg). Clearly if so-called “rogue” states were violating these accords, the US would be outraged, but the US is too powerful to be held liable. In fact, the International Court of Justice rejected Yugoslavia’s request of April 29 to have the US “cease immediately acts or use of force,” not because of flaws in the case, but because of lack of jurisdiction. Yugoslavia held that the US and other NATO countries were in violation of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. With great insight, the US had ratified the Convention only on condition that the Court was barred from judging on cases against the US. In the case of the “rogue superpower” sovereignty is more important than human rights.

NATO War Crimes

Not only was the decision of NATO to bomb Yugoslavia illegal in theory, it was illegal in practice. The most serious violations of international law are violations of laws respecting war; crimes against these laws are called war crimes. In making their judgement on the Nazi war crimes, the Nuremberg Tribunal declared, “To initiate a war of agression, therefore, is not only an international crime, it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” In what follows I give two illustrations of war crimes which NATO has committed, the crime of conducting a deliberate war against civilians and the crime of using weapons of highly indiscriminate nature, cluster bombs. Others have tabulated more extensively the criminal acts of NATO19,20 so I refer the reader interested in more detail to those works.

A war against civilians

The Hague Convention Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land of 1907 outlaw the waging of war against civilians, as well as the destruction of civilian objects: “The attack or bombardment, by whatever means, of towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings which are undefended is prohibited” (Article 25, Hague) Also, “In sieges and bombardments all necessary steps must be taken to spare, as far as possible, buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not being used at the time for military purposes” (Article 26, Hague). News reports told of horrible “mistakes” where bombs killed civilians, but Jerome Zeifman, former Watergate Committee Counsel, argues that the targeting of civilians was deliberate: “the armed forces of the United States have participated in non-defensive aggressive military attacks.”21

Even NATO admitted that among its goals were the destruction of the infrastructure of Serbian society. Leutenant General Michael Short advocated airstrikes in the capital city of Belgrade, stressing the ” `need to strike at the leadership and the people around Milosevic to compel them to change their behavior.’ ” According to Michael Gordon of the New York Times, “While NATO says it is not fighting against the Serbian people, General Short also hopes that the distress of the Yugoslav public will undermine support for the authorities in Belgrade. `I think no power to your refrigerator, no gas in your stove, you can’t get to work because the bridge is down — the bridge on which you held your rock concerts — and you all stood with targets on your heads. That needs to disappear at 3 o’clock in the morning.’ ” 22 That evening Belgrade sustained a power blackout as NATO warplanes struck a power plant. The following day, Pentagon spokesperson Kenneth Bacon was quoted as saying, “I don’t think he [Milosevic] believed that NATO would hit Belgrade hard, night after night…It has, and it will continue to do so.”23

Airstrikes in regions known to be inhabited by civilians, let alone the most populous city of a country, are illegal (see Table 2). The insistence of NATO that “it is not fighting against the Serbian people” is imprecise. Robert George, Professor of Government at Princeton University, notes that, “even if it would be militarily effective to gain victory by terrorizing the civilian population, that is morally wrong. That is waging war on civilians.” He denounces the indiscriminate nature of the NATO bombardment of cities in Serbia, Vojvodina, and Kosovo, which took place from over 10,000 feet. “Was it fair to impose on Serb and Kosovar civilians the burden of the deaths of large numbers of civilians to ensure that there would be no deaths of NATO troops?”24 Referring to the high-altitude bombing, The Economist writes, “On some interpretations this alone may constitute a war crime.”25

Use of Cluster bombs

Among the most indiscriminate of weapons, cluster bombs were dropped by the NATO allies on heavily populated areas. Cluster bombs scatter of order 200 bomblets in random directions, each of which has a 5-30% failure-to-explode rate. Not only are cluster bombs unguided and unpredictable weapons of mass destruction, unexploded bomblets act as land mines which can kill soldiers and civilians alike. The First Protocol to the 1949 Geneva Convention declares, “Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited…[such as] an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.” (Article 5, Geneva)

Over 1,100 cluster bombs, each containing about 200 bomblets, were dropped on the province of Kosovo alone. According to the World Health Organization, about 150 Kosovars were killed or injured by “land mines and unexploded ordnance,” which included cluster bomblets, in the first month after the bombing ended. In addition, commercial fishing from Ancona to Trieste has been banned by the Italian Government because NATO planes unloaded unused bombs into the Adriatic, including cluster bombs. Several fisherman have been injured, and 97 bomblets have been recovered so far. Unexploded cluster bombs pose a serious risk to civilians throughout the world. Millions of less-advanced bomblets are still scattered in the forests and fields of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the result of America’s Indochina war campaigns of the 1960’s and 1970’s and are “still killing and maiming,” according to an August 2 Newsweek article. Cluster bombs dropped during Operation Desert Storm have killed or injured over 1,000 Kuwaitis. And now, a “Washington source” is quoted in Newsweek as admitting, “We used cluster bombs in Kosovo in a way that we knew shifted the risk from pilots to civilians.” This disturbing admission begs the veracity of NATO’s claims to be conducting a “humanitarian war.”

Table 2.  International Conventions Violated by NATO During the Bombing of Yugoslavia
Violated Text
The Hague Convention Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land (1907) “The attack or bombardment, by whatever means, of towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings which are undefended is prohibited.” (Article 25)

“In sieges and bombardments all necessary steps must be taken to spare, as far as possible, buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not being used at the time for military purposes.”  (Article 26)

“Civilian hospitals organized to give care to the wounded and sick, the infirm and maternity cases, may in no circumstances be the object of attack…” (Article 18)
Principles of International Law Recognized in the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal and in the Judgment of the Tribunal (1950) Violations of the laws or customs of war which include…wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity” are War Crimes (Principle VI b)
Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (1969; entered into force 1980) “A treaty is void if its conclusion has been procured by the threat or use of force in violation of the principles of international law embodied in
the Charter of the United Nations.”  (Article 52; cf. the threat of bombing to induce Yugoslavia to sign the Rambouillet Agreement.)
Protocol Additional to the Geneva Convention and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol 1)  (1949) “Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited…[such as] an attack by bombardment…which treats as a single military objective a number of clearly separated and distinct military objectives located in a city, town, village or other area containing a similar concentration of civilians…[or] an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.” (Article 51)

“Attacks shall be limited strictly to military objectives…In case of doubt whether an object which is normally dedicated to civilian purposes, such as a place of worship, a house or other dwelling or a school, is being used to make an effective contribution to military action, it shall be presumed not to be so used.” (Article 52)

“It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.”  (Article 54

“Care shall be taken in warfare to protect the natural environment against widespread, long-term and severe damage. This protection includes a prohibition of the use of methods or means of warfare which are intended or may be expected to cause such damage to the natural environment and thereby to prejudice the health or survival of the population. ” (Article 55)

“The use of remotely delivered mines is prohibited unless such mines are only used within an area which is itself a military objective or which contains military objectives, and unless:   (a) their location can be accurately recorded…; or (b) an effective neutralizing mechanism is used on each such mine” (Article 5.1; eg. unexploded cluster bombs) 
Ottawa Anti-Personnel Land Mine Treaty (1997) NATO’s use of cluster bombs should be interpreted as a violation of the land mine ban, since unexploded bomblets (5-30% of the total) embed themselves in the ground and act as land mines.
United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982; entered into force 1996) US Intended to halt and board ships bearing oil to Montenegrin ports. France objected so NATO settled on a “voluntary” blockade, which some states (such as Ukraine) disregarded.  The Convention states, “In straits…all ships and aircraft enjoy the right of transit passage, which shall not be impeded…” (Article 38)

Additionally, NATO planes dumped unused cluster bombs in international waters off the coast of Italy.   According to the Convention, “States shall adopt laws and regulations to prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment by dumping.” (Article 210)
“Dumping” means “any deliberate disposal of wastes or other matter from vessels, aircraft, platforms or other man-made structures at sea.”

48th session, U.N. Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities (1996) “…urged all States to be guided in their national policies by the need to curb the production and the spread of weapons of mass destruction or with indiscriminate effect, in particular nuclear weapons,chemical weapons, fuel-air bombs, napalm, cluster bombs, biological weaponry and weaponry containing depleted uranium. ” (Resolution 1996/16)

The Future of International Law

NATO has succeeded in creating a precedent for independent intervention outside of the trappings of international law, making it “easier to intervene in the future”(note 17). NATO has committed war crimes. What can stop the further degradation of peace, justice, and human rights in coming years? The UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, posed the problem quite lucidly:

To those for whom the Kosovo action heralded a new era when states and groups of states can take military action outside the established mechanisms for enforcing international law, one might equally ask: Is there not a danger of such interventions…setting dangerous precedents for future interventions without a clear criterion to decide who might invoke these precedents and in what circumstances?27

Only outspoken, rational, and thoughtful criticism which appeals to the moral nature of the human race can stop the continuance of the NATO precedent. I believe a campaign to strengthen the legitimacy of international law should be part of this discourse.

1 Legal Information Institute, Website:
2 Harris, quoted in Lucier Insight into the News August 2 1999.
3 Mandelbaum, Foreign Affairs, Sept-Oct 1999.
4 Wines, New York Times, June 13 1999.
5 Miller, New York Times, April 18 1999.
6 Frankel, The New York Times Magazine, May 2 1999.
7 Shue, Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence, and US Foreign Policy, 2nd Ed., 1996, Princeton Univ. Press.
8 Annan, The Economist, Sept 18 1999.
9 Corten, UNESCO Courier, July-August 1999.
10 At the Rome meeting which established the court, 120 nations voted in favor of the ICC, 21 countries abstained, and the US, Israel, China, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Sudan voted against the treaty. Douglass Cassel, director of the Center for International Human Rights of Northwestern University School of Law, reported in the May 12, 1999 issue of Christian Century that “following the 120-7 humiliation of the US in Rome, delegates applauded for 15 minutes.”
11 The Economist, Oct 9 1999.
12 The US is a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, together with China, Russia, Britain, and France. Permanent Members may veto Council Resolutions. Since 1966, the US has (often for reasons of “sovereignty”) vetoed 72 Security Council Resolutions, while Britain has vetoed only 29, Russia 15, France 14, and China 2.
13 Mandelbaum, Op cit.
14 See for example Chomsky, The New Military Humanism: The Lessons of Kosovo, 1999, Common Courage Press.
15 Albright, quoted in Mandelbaum, op cit.
16 Halperin, quoted in The Economist, Sept 18 1999.
17 Byers, quoted in The Economist, May 15 1999.
18 Huntington, Foreign Affairs, March 1999.
19 Lykourezos, Complaint Charging NATO’s Political and Military Leaders With Grave Breaches of the Geneva Convention of 1949 and Violations of the Laws and Customs of War See
20 Zeifman, International Ethical Alliance versus William Clinton and William Cohen See
21 Zeifman, quoten in Lucier, Op cit.
22 Short, quoted by Gordon in the New York Times, May 13 1999.
23 Bacon, quoted by Becker in the New York Times, May 14 1999.
24 George, quoted in Lucier, Op cit.
25 The Economist, Op cit., May 15 1999.
26 Dickey, Dennis, Nadeau, Bernard, & Barry, Newsweek, August 2 1999.
27 Annan, Op cit.