Did NATO use lethal depleted uranium (DU) during its seven-month air campaign against Libya while intervening to support the groups who rebelled against the government of Muammar Gaddafi in the autumn of 2011? Were civilians killed in the round-the-clock bombardment, even though they played no role whatsoever in the civil war that engulfed Libya between March and October 2011?
The answer to both questions is a big yes, but if you ask NATO officials they are likely to deny everything or dodge the issues altogether. I put both questions to NATO's former Deputy Secretary General, the US diplomat Alexander Vershbow, after his opening remarks to a NATO conference in Madrid on 15 October, 2015.
I asked him if NATO acknowledges any of the civilians it had killed in Libya and what it intended to do about them. He was surprised by the question, hesitated a little, and then said, "Our mission in Libya was to carry out a UN Security Council Resolution to protect the Libyan people and we think it was a successful mission." He refused to say anything else, even when I repeated the question when he stepped off the podium. Vershbow again insisted on denying any wrongdoing by NATO, and ended the discussion by saying that it was neither the place nor the time to discuss the matter. Although he gave me his business card, he did not reply to my subsequent email.
The same question was asked at the same event of Catherine Royle, NATO's political advisor at the time. Was she consulted about the political implications of civilian deaths, and did she think that there was some "collateral damage" as a result of NATO's 2011 operations in Libya? "I cannot comment on operational issues," she insisted, even though we were talking four years after NATO ended its military intervention in my country.
It is certain that NATO killed dozens of Libyan civilian in their own homes; this has been documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as well as a dozen local rights groups. These include the recently established Association of NATO Victims and War on Libya (ANWL) which was set up by victims' families. It has already taken NATO to court in Brussels, where it is based. The group has not, however, suggested that NATO deliberately targeted civilians, but that they were killed by stray bombs and missiles.
Recent surveys of different sites in the Libyan capital Tripoli and Bani Walid to the south-west of the city reveal between 10 and 15 times the normal radiation level, which suggests that they are contaminated by depleted uranium. This is dangerous for civilians, given that almost all of the sites which were bombed by NATO are not secure, and are still accessible to the unsuspecting public. We need to ask again, therefore, did NATO use DU munitions when it bombed Libya in 2011?
Nuclear physicist Dr Nuri Droughi has tested samples of soil from these areas and conducted on-site radiation measurements, and confirms what has already been suspected by many. I accompanied him on a visit to one site in April. In recent media statements Dr Droughi insisted on the accuracy of his work and called upon the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli "to do something about this disaster."
Depleted uranium is a by-product of nuclear reactors. It is a heavy metal and a highly concentrated type of uranium with an estimated shelf-life of about 4.5 million years. This means that it takes a very long time indeed for DU to become less radioactive. Its effects on the environment and human beings can last as long as 24 years.
DU was used by NATO in the bombing of former Yugoslavia and in Kosovo during the 1990s. The US also used DU during its invasion of Iraq in 2003 and, before that, in 1991 in what is known as Gulf War I, when America led an international coalition to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
The "silent killer", as depleted uranium is sometimes called, is dangerous to civilians and all kinds of life because it remains in the soil for such long periods. It is mostly associated with different types of cancer, particularly lung cancer after being transported on the wind.
Experts warn that places contaminated by DU are hard to clean as there is no prescribed way of doing so. Rainwater takes it deep into the soil which could affect the food chain eventually if it is ingested by animals. This remains an area for study, so nothing has been confirmed, but suspicions remain.
Fallujah in Iraq is well known for having one of the highest rates of cancer in the Gulf region, particularly childhood leukaemia. DU has been linked to congenital deformities, and there has been a disturbing increase in the number of Iraqi babies born with missing and deformed body parts.
In Libya there have been no complete scientific studies to link DU to any direct or indirect effects on humans, although the number of cancer cases is apparently on the rise since the NATO intervention. Some experts think it is too early to have a clear picture because the effects of DU may take years to appear.
The GNA feels unable to raise the issues of depleted uranium and civilian victims of NATO's campaign in Libya. It is claimed — falsely, I believe — that NATO intervened in Libya to protect the people from the Gaddafi regime. As such, almost all of the governments since Gaddafi's feel that they owe their existence to NATO, to which they must be indebted. That would explain why questions seem to have been brushed under the carpet.
Rogue militias backed by NATO air support in 2011, and which are still active, especially in Tripoli, also play their part in suppressing the DU and "collateral damage" issues. That has an effect on the whole population, regardless of political affiliation. Civilians killed in NATO raids are categorised as "victims of war", and nothing more. Furthermore, the ANWL, founded in Cairo by exiled victims' families, does not receive any kind of help or even recognition from the Libyan authorities.
Such an attitude by national institutions, in particular those under the control of the GNA — which is recognised internationally as the legitimate government in Libya — makes it very difficult for those seeking justice for lost family members. It is even harder to get full information about DU and how much it was used, and where, in Libya.
Will NATO one day accept the fact that while it might have helped Libyans in 2011, its DU munitions contaminated parts of their country with an incredibly dangerous substance? The experience of the people of Iraq and former Yugoslavia would suggest not.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.