Thousands of Serbs have launched a legal battle against NATO. Their goal is to obtain compensation for the bombing of Yugoslavia with depleted uranium shells. The fact that such a weapon could provoke cancer and led the Balkans to an ecological catastrophe was often written and talked about, but Europe was really afraid only when cancer began to threaten NATO members themselves, which went down in history as the “Balkan syndrome”.
They were concerned about the diagnosis of the “Balkan syndrome” exactly 20 years ago – in January 2001, when meetings on this problem were held at the headquarters of NATO and the European Union. It was not about the post-traumatic stress disorder typical of former combatants, but about leukemia and other cancers.
By that time, 18 NATO soldiers who took part in the hostilities and the peacekeeping operation in Kosovo had died of cancer: seven Italians, five Belgians, two Danes, two Spaniards, a Portuguese and a Czech. Four more French and four Belgians were diagnosed with leukemia.
The main suspect was the Pentagon, which used ammunition with depleted uranium cores. Only the dumb were not talking about their destructive effect on the ecology of the region and the hundreds of victims among Serbs and Albanians in the Balkans at that time, but Serbs were one thing, NATO soldiers were another. An international scandal became inevitable.
It ended in essentially nothing. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright summed up the discussion: “There is no evidence yet that could link the health problems of peacekeepers and weapons based on depleted uranium.”
The Departments of Defense of Great Britain and France stated about the same. And the courts, where the victims filed claims, sided with the leadership of the North Atlantic Alliance.
The picture is seemingly clear. NATO aggression against Yugoslavia is a war crime. At the beginning of the 2000s, the United States is a world hegemon capable of conducting politicians in its zone of influence. The Pentagon does not give up its own people, no matter what atrocities they are accused of, and does not reflect on its methods in third world countries. And Albright, of course, is lying, she cannot but lie, because she is a criminal for the Serbs and an enemy for Russia.
All this is true or almost so, but as far as shells with uranium cores are concerned, the situation is somewhat more complicated. In fact, Albright’s wording is still relevant, twenty years later: there is no verdict on the part of WHO, the UN or the scientific community that the use of such projectiles is dangerous from the point of view of the development of cancer.
In the Russian media, one can find the statement that these are weapons prohibited by the UN, but this is not the case. The UN Commission on Human Rights is indeed working on an international ban on the use of depleted uranium munitions, but has so far been unsuccessful. It was possible to agree only to further study the issue of their potential danger to non-combatants and the environment, while the Russian delegation voted against the corresponding resolution in the General Assembly.
This is no coincidence: in their assessments of depleted uranium shells, Russian weapons and nuclear energy specialists, as a rule, are in solidarity with the West.
Such ammunition is the children of World War II that came to mind at the zenith of the Cold War. The first to think of them in the Ministry of Armaments of Nazi Germany. And in the 1970s, the Pentagon was already asked about the urgent modernization of American shells – the previous ones risked becoming ineffective against the updated armor of Soviet heavy equipment.
So in the production of ammunition, depleted uranium began to be used, which has very important qualities for this – it is light, but at the same time very dense. For the same reason, it is used in tank armor.
A slightly higher, but comparable density in gold, as well as in tungsten, which is widely used in the military industry – the shortage of this particular metal forced the Wehrmacht to switch to uranium. The Americans also risked facing a shortage: while mining their own tungsten, they had to buy it (and still buy it) mainly from communist China. But all the nuclear powers had a lot of depleted uranium, and it was simply disposed of before it was used in ammunition.
In other words, the members of the “nuclear club” can easily afford shells with depleted uranium, and they all did not hesitate to acquire them, but it came to practical use only in Iraq (both in the first and in the second war with Hussein), in Bosnia and in Yugoslavia Slobodan Milosevic.
Germany, for example, does not have such shells. As German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping said at the height of the scandal around the “Balkan syndrome”, “it would be better if no one had them.” However, they still have their own experts in weapons and nuclear energy, and their conclusions coincide with those of the Americans and Russians: shells with depleted uranium do not pose a radiation threat.
True, there is still a toxicological danger – with the abundant ingress of uranium particles into the lungs and open wounds. But in this case, the risk of developing cancer, according to the WHO verdict, will increase by only two percentage points.
Of course, there is a different opinion – about the increased danger of shells with a uranium core for the environment and public health. It is widely presented, its translators are environmentalists, human rights activists, pacifists, motley left-liberal activists, some of whom have reason to speak from the world of science.
But their conclusions about virtually any weapon and method of using nuclear energy will be equally categorical – sharply negative.
From all of the above, it does not follow that the remarkable design solution in the field of shells is simply slandered: the same “Balkan syndrome” has not been canceled, and among the inhabitants of the Balkan region affected by the war, it is more common than among NATO peacekeepers.
There is still no complete clarity on this issue, and to call uranium cores “safe for health” is not only too bold, but also blasphemous.
But they are absolutely definitely part of the propaganda confrontation, politicized interpretations, speculations on emotions – everything that always accompanies wars, the arms market and big politics. So it was twenty years ago, and it still remains so. But something has changed.
Charges of crimes against public health, environmental safety and mother nature have since increased their informational and political weight significantly. Perhaps because of this, now that the phrase “Balkan syndrome” has already been forgotten, a court in Italy recognized a causal link between depleted uranium and cancer, after which the North Atlantic Alliance paid compensation to the affected Italians.
The winning Italian lawyers are now advising Serbs, who have a long way to go in the courts, as their country is not a member of the EU and NATO. But the aim of the lawsuits is the same – to get payments from Brussels for about 2,000 victims of the bombing with depleted uranium shells.
Serbs on this path can only wish good luck. In their case, it does not matter at all what is a myth in relation to depleted uranium and what is a scientific fact. The United States and NATO as a whole committed a crime when the shells were dropped on Yugoslavia, and not when the debris of buildings suddenly began to “radiate”. Whatever compensation the Serbs were eventually awarded by the courts, it will not be possible to pay for these crimes in due measure.
But you have to start somewhere.