San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Activists Turn to President Arias

U.S. and Costa Rican activists are lobbying to enlist Costa Rica’s Nobel Peace Prize winner and disarmament defender to lead their uphill battle against the military use of a popular radioactive weapon. President Oscar Arias met with opposition legislator Oscar López, an afflicted former U.S. soldier and a U.S. activist Wednesday to discuss the possibility of Arias backing their campaign against the military use of a form of nuclear waste currently being shot, launched and fired at the enemies of the United States and its allies in the Iraq War.

The substance is depleted uranium, a by-product of nuclear energy production that can pierce through a tank or steel armor like a sword through flesh. Militaries have been putting it into bullets, missiles and bombs and unloading the waste on their enemies in recent wars. For instance, approximately 300 tons of depleted uranium munitions were used in the 1991 Gulf War, according to different reports from U.S. media.

In the meeting, López, former U.S. soldier Herbert Reed, and Damacio Lopez, director of the Colorado International Depleted Uranium Study Team (IDUST) presented to Arias a draft convention they want him to present to the United Nations to prohibit the development, production and use of uranium weapons.

Though no concrete result emerged from Wednesday’s meeting, the IDUST director said the President told them he supports the cause.

Depleted uranium is a heavy metal 1.7 times denser than lead that bursts into flame on impact with extreme temperatures. It’s an overabundant waste product from the nuclear industry and a cheap, effective weapon.

According to IDUST, it is about 60% as radioactive as purified natural uranium, and has a half-life of 4.5 billion years – which scientists estimate is the Earth’s age.

Possible effects of exposure to depleted uranium, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), include kidney and lung tissue damage and erythema, or inflammation of the skin.

Suffering former soldiers such as Reed claim their many ailments are because of exposure to depleted uranium in the U.S.-ledGulf War and more recently in the Iraq War (see separate article).

The U.S. government has maintained a firm stance that the negative health effects of exposure are minimal. The Tico Times contacted the U.S. Department of Defense press office this week to discuss the matter but didn’t receive a response by press time.

Depleted uranium is at the center of a low profile, but heated, debate in demilitarized Costa Rica, after activists pointed out that the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) includes it and other forms of uranium in its list of product categories for Customs purposes.

Reed told The Tico Times he is deeply concerned about the fact that depleted uranium is mentioned in CAFTA, though he said that topic did not come up during the conversation with Arias – despite the presence of López, of the Access Without Exclusion Party (PASE), who helped set up the meeting and is a vehement critic of the U.S. trade agreement.

Arias has declared the ratification of CAFTA one of his administration’s top priorities.

“This is a fundamental reason in my case to oppose the agreement,” legislator López said, showing reporters a copy of the page of CAFTA that lists depleted uranium. “If the U.S. army is irresponsibly poisoning Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, Costa Rica doesn’t have to participate in this.”

CAFTA Annex 3.3, which categorizes goods for Customs and taxation purposes, lists depleted, natural and enriched uranium (the latter used for nuclear energy and weapons) and their compounds. Though proponents of the pact are quick to point out that presence on this list doesn’t guarantee a right to import uranium to the country, Costa Rica doesn’t have any laws prohibiting uranium use, according to legislator López, who presented a bill last week that would remedy that situation by banning all forms of uranium here.

“I don’t see much future for (the bill), simply because there (in the assembly) they have an order from above: approve CAFTA the way it is,” he said.

In November, the Legislative Assembly’s International Affairs Commission, then considering CAFTA, rejected López’s motion to invite University of Costa Rica (UCR) scientists to visit the group and clarify what CAFTA says on nuclear substances.

The Tico Times contacted Casa Presidencial to ask for Arias’ comments on the meeting, but did not receive a response by press time.

The possibility of the trade or manufacturing of weapons has already detonated a highly politicized scandal in Costa Rica, when CAFTA opponents brought to light the listing of arms and heavy artillery in the CAFTA annex (TT, Oct. 13, 2006). The scandal stirred up talk of tightening Costa Rica’s Arms Law, though no changes have occurred as of yet.

Former CAFTA negotiator for Costa Rica Alberto Trejos said CAFTA only reduces tariffs, so whether a product like uranium can be traded or developed in Costa Rica depends on Costa Rican law.

Elaine Samson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in San José, said the fact that uranium is in the annex “doesn’t mean it’s coming into Costa Rica, it doesn’t mean Costa Rica is exploiting it…it’s any product that could possibly be traded by countries,” she said.

Damacio Lopez said Arias was unsure whether his Arms Trade Treaty, a proposal now under consideration by the United Nations, would prohibit depleted uranium use. The activist is reviewing the treaty text before another meeting today with Foreign Minister Bruno Stagno. Lopez said Arias told him that if the treaty doesn’t already ban uranium use, he would support a separate U.N. resolution to do so.

Lopez, who grew up in the U.S. state of New Mexico near a missile test site for the U.S. military, said he would like to see Costa Rica champion the fight against spent uranium use the way Belgium championed a ban on land mines – by becoming the first country to outlaw weapons made from the controversial material.

In a protest last Saturday, about 60 people gathered at Parque Morazán in downtown San José to protest the fourth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Organizers said one of the activity’s goals was to raise awareness about the U.S. military’s use of depleted uranium in weapons.

Tico Times reporter Katherine Stanley contributed to this report.


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