Jan 10 2001

Depleted Coverage of NATO’s Depleted Uranium Weapons

Concern has been mounting rapidly throughout Europe over the effects of depleted uranium (DU) munitions used by NATO in Bosnia and Yugoslavia during the 1994-95 and 1999 wars. At least 12 soldiers– six Italian, five Belgian and one Portuguese– who served in the Balkans have died of leukemia or other forms of cancer; several Italian, Spanish, French and Dutch soldiers are being treated for cancer; and several other European countries are currently testing their soldiers for signs of illness.

Other soldiers and aid workers have experienced symptoms including “chronic fatigue, hair loss and various types of cancer” (New York Times, 1/7/01), ailments which have collectively come to be known as “Balkans War Syndrome,” much like Gulf War Syndrome.

Italy, Belgium, France, Portugal and Germany have all demanded that NATO conduct a thorough investigation into the health and environmental impacts of DU, and have expressed distrust of Pentagon and NATO reassurances (Agence France Presse, 1/8/01). Reports in the European press suggest that the situation is causing serious divisions within the alliance, with the conservative London Times asserting that the soldiers’ “Deaths Threaten the Unity of Nato” (1/6/01). Germany has called on NATO to ban the toxic and radioactive metal (The Independent, 1/9/01), while the United Nations’ war crimes tribunal has offered to make available all relevant records on the Kosovo war, raising the question of the legality of NATO’s use of DU (Agence France Presse, 1/8/01).

Since the new year, stories about the DU controversy have been running almost daily in every major British newspaper, with the Guardian (1/8/01) and Independent (1/6/01) each running editorials calling for a NATO investigation into DU’s health effects. Altogether, the London Independenth as run 14 original articles; the London Times has run 12; the Daily Telegraph has run 10; and the Guardian and its Sunday paper, the Observer, have run eight.

Meanwhile, in the U.S.– the country most responsible by far for DU contamination– newspapers have relegated most of their coverage to news briefs and short wire stories. The only U.S. newspaper in the Nexis media database to have run an editorial on the current controversy is the Seattle Times (1/6/01). Big picture questions about the extensive use of DU since the Gulf War, its lasting impact on civilian populations and the record of official deception around DU have been largely ignored in both print and broadcast reports.

Apart from small wire stories, the New York Times has run only three original pieces on the current DU controversy. The Washington Post and Chicago Tribune have each run two original stories on the topic, while the Los Angeles Times, USA Today and Christian Science Monitor have run one apiece.

Besides a sprinkling of news briefs and short wire service stories in papers across the country (one of the most widely used was the Associated Press‘ January 5 piece noting “many medical experts” who are “skeptical” of DU’s dangers), these few articles represent the extent of U.S. print coverage of the current controversy.

Television coverage has also been limited. CNN has aired two reports on DU(1/7/01, 1/10/01), while the three networks’ evening news broadcasts eachdid one story (NBC, 1/7/01; ABC, 1/8/01; CBS, 1/8/01).

Only three of the mainstream U.S. media reports about the currentcontroversy have referred in any detail to the parallels between Balkans WarSyndrome and the illnesses alleged to have resulted from use of DU duringthe Gulf War– the Los Angeles Times article (1/6/01, which also ran thenext day in Newsday), one Chicago Tribune article (1/9/01) and the ChristianScience Monitor‘s excellent January 9 piece. Though richer in backgroundthan other U.S. reports, neither the L.A. Times nor the Tribune articlesaddressed the growing evidence that the U.S. military has long known aboutand attempted to conceal the dangers of DU. (For more information on thispoint, see the resources listed below.)

Nor was the larger question about DU raised: Is it legal? In a December 18draft recommendation that went largely unremarked, the Environment Committeeof the Council of Europe found that during the Kosovo war, NATO countriesviolated provisions of the Geneva Conventions intended to limitenvironmental damage.

Among other things, the committee cited “the use of depleted uranium inwarheads” as a violation that had “dramatically worsened” Yugoslavia’senvironment “with long-lasting effects on the health and quality of life forfuture generations.” The committee further found that this damage “can bepresumed to have been deliberate.”

According to a search of the Nexis database, no major U.S. newspaper,magazine, television show or wire service has reported on the COE’ssuggestion that NATO countries deliberately violated international law.

Despite questions raised by veterans, health researchers and internationalorganizations like the UN, NATO’s use of DU in Kosovo has received almost nosustained media attention, either during or after the war. One wartimereport on ABC‘s Nightline (4/1/99) criticized Serbian state media’s coverageof the conflict, highlighting what it described as “this astonishing claim”from a Belgrade news report: “They [NATO forces] even use radioactiveweapons…which are forbidden by the Geneva Convention.”

Astonishing, perhaps, but true; at the time, the Pentagon had alreadyadmitted using DU in Kosovo. As for the possibility that NATO violated theGeneva Conventions, ABC has never returned to it.

For more information about depleted uranium, see:

The Military Toxics Project’s page on DU:http://www.miltoxproj.org/DU/DU_Titlepage/DU_Titlepage.htm

The National Gulf War Resources Center’s DU Link:http://www.ngwrc.org/Dulink/du_link.htm

See also FAIR’s April 1999 alert on DU in Kosovo:http://www.fair.org/activism/depleted-uranium.html

More of FAIR’s work on Yugoslavia