Charm-3 (Legal Review)

Defence written statement – made on 12th July 2012.

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Photo of Nick Harvey Nick Harvey The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I informed the House on 31 October 2011 that I had commissioned officials to undertake a legal weapons review of our depleted uranium (DU) anti-armour tank rounds, known as Charm-3. Although Charm-3 was introduced before the Government were obliged to undertake such reviews, I ordered this review, as a special case, to address concerns that have been raised in Parliament and by civil society.

The review is now complete and has concluded that Charm-3 is capable of being used lawfully by UK armed forces in an international armed conflict. Charm-3 is the only munition within the UK arsenal manufactured using DU. We judge this capability necessary in any land battle to defeat the armoured vehicles of an adversary state and no alternative tank round (using another metal or substance) has been shown to provide a comparable effect on target. It is self evident that use of Charm-3 will be limited to a war fighting role, specifically in tank battles, and likely therefore to be employed only in exceptional and limited circumstances.

Legal weapon reviews are carried out in accordance with article 36 of the first protocol of 1977 additional to the Geneva conventions of 1949 (Additional Protocol I). Article 36 states:

“In the study, development, acquisition or adoption of a new weapon, means or method of warfare, a high contracting party is under an obligation to determine whether its employment would, in some or all circumstances, be prohibited by this protocol or by any other rule of international law applicable to the high contracting party”.

Such legal reviews are undertaken routinely in respect of weapon systems brought on to the UK inventory following UK ratification of additional protocol I, on 28 January 1998. The acquisition of Charm-3 pre-dates ratification and for that reason only, no review had been undertaken before now.

The legal review process under article 36 of additional protocol I required the use of Charm-3 to be considered in the light of certain key legal principles, namely:

Whether it is prohibited by any specific treaty provision;

Whether it is of a nature to cause unnecessary suffering or superfluous injury;

Whether it is capable of being used discriminately;

Whether it will cause long-term, widespread and severe damage to the natural environment;

Current and possible future trends in international humanitarian law.

The legal weapon review considered each of these points. The review itself comprises legal advice provided in confidence, but I wish to set out the rationale for reaching the judgment that the rounds are legal:

The use of DU in weapon systems is not prohibited by any treaty provision.

There have been extensive scientifically based studies, undertaken by the World Health Organisation in relation to the long-term environmental and other health effects allegedly attributable to the use of DU munitions. In the light of the reassuring conclusions drawn by such scientific studies, and noting the continuing military imperative underpinning retention of Charm-3 as a weapon system, it was concluded that use of Charm-3 does not offend the principle prohibiting superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering in armed conflict.

Crew training, weapon design and automated targeting systems mean Charm-3 is capable of being used discriminately.

Where DU ordnance residues have existed, in the aftermath of an armed conflict, annual potential radiation doses have been shown by scientific study to be well below the annual doses received by the general population from sources of natural radiation in the environment and far below the reference level recommended by the International Atomic Energy Agency as a criterion to determine whether remedial action is necessary. An environmental footprint inevitably will be left by use of DU munitions but one where a credible and authoritative body of scientific evidence (drawn from both international and national sources) has demonstrated there is no proven link between exposure to DU and, neither, a significant risk to public health, nor, a significant risk of any long-term damage to the environment.

Finally, it was concluded that DU continues to be a material of choice used by states in the manufacture of anti-armour munitions. To date no inter-state consensus has emerged that DU munitions should be banned and the available scientific evidence (developed in the aftermath of the Gulf war in 1991) continues to support the view held by the UK that such munitions can be retained for the limited role envisaged for their employment.

The UK policy remains that DU can be used within weapons; it is not prohibited under current or likely future international agreements. Given the challenging situations in which we expect our service personnel to operate, it would be wrong to deny them legitimate and effective capabilities that can help them achieve their objectives as quickly and as safely as possible.