A Vietnamese soldier stands next to a hazardous warning sign by a runway at Bien Hoa air base, on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, as US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis visits the former US air base on 17 October, 2018. (Photo: Thomas WATKINS/ AFP)

A Vietnamese soldier stands next to a hazardous warning sign by a runway at Bien Hoa air base, on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, as US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis visits the former US air base on 17 October, 2018. (Photo: Thomas WATKINS/ AFP)

Agent Orange: Vietnam’s ‘Struggle for Justice’ Continues

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Agent Orange remains a barrier to closer Vietnam-US relations. To lower this barrier, the Biden administration should treat Vietnamese victims the same as American ones.

On January 25, 2021, a French court opened a ‘historic’ case. A French-Vietnamese woman is suing fourteen companies that produced the Agent Orange herbicide containing a harmful dioxin for use as a defoliant by American forces during the Vietnam War. Tran To Nga, a 79-year-old former war correspondent, filed the lawsuit in 2014 at the Ervy Court in Paris, accusing these firms of causing harm to her, her children, and countless other affected individuals. The verdict is expected on 10 May this year.

A wave of transnational solidarity for Agent Orange victims has swelled since the trial began. Activists used Twitter hashtags (#ForAOVictims #JusticeForTranToNga) and organised a rally in Paris to garner international attention. The Vietnam Association for Agent Orange Victims (VAVA) publicly backs Nga and has collected more than 400,000 supporting signatures.

Nga’s legal action is part of the Vietnamese ongoing ‘struggle for justice’ (đấu tranh đòi công lý) that seeks to obtain redress for Agent Orange victims and hold American chemical companies and government accountable. The Vietnamese government claims that three million Vietnamese, including around 150,000 children, have suffered from birth defects and other health problems as a result of Agent Orange exposure. Most victims are severely disabled. Nga herself suffers from dioxin-related health effects and believes that her daughter died because of one. 

A victory for Nga will provide a precedent and motivation for others to pursue compensation. Even if this case fails, the call for justice will continue to grow, given the current momentum.

The ‘struggle for justice’ movement began in 2004 with the class-action lawsuit initiated by VAVA against Monsanto, Dow Chemical, and other Agent Orange manufacturers. A US judge dismissed the victims’ claims, citing that the defendants violated no domestic or international laws. Subsequent appeals were unsuccessful. The ruling has allowed the companies in question to refuse compensation to Vietnamese victims. In contrast, twenty years earlier, US chemical companies paid $180 million to American veterans with dioxin-related illnesses.

Recent US courts’ rulings on Monsanto’s herbicides rekindled VAVA’s interests in litigation. In 2018 and 2019, two such rulings ordered the company to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to Americans who claimed the firm’s products were responsible for their ill health. These rulings reminded the Vietnamese of their failed attempt to challenge US companies in court in 2004. While the products in question do not contain the dioxin made infamous by Agent Orange, many in Vietnam believe that these rulings reflect the American courts’ double standard and provide a new legal argument for the struggle for justice movement.

While Nga’s lawsuit comes at a time of increasing US-Vietnam government-to government cooperation on mitigating the harms caused by Agent Orange, frustration over the American government’s  differential treatment of Vietnamese and American victims also drives the ‘struggle for justice.’ The US government has not officially recognized adverse health effects caused by toxic defoliants in Vietnam. However, it dispenses billions of dollars every year to compensate American veterans who became ill because of Agent Orange exposure. 

A victory for Nga will provide a precedent and motivation for others to pursue compensation. Even if this case fails, the call for justice will continue to grow, given the current momentum.

These big payments stand in contrast with the relatively minute $14.5 million annual funding for health-related activities in Vietnam. Moreover, US-sponsored assistance is severely limited and leaves out many potential beneficiaries outside of the current priority provinces. Washington assumes no legal obligation but has allocated nearly $400 million to fund dioxin remediation and health and disabilities assistance in provinces in Vietnam sprayed with Agent Orange. The US-Vietnam partnership on addressing war legacies has contributed to enhancing bilateral ties and mutual trust in recent years. 

Yet, apparently, these efforts have not assuaged the victims’ persistent demand for justice. Nga’s lawsuit and Vietnamese bitterness over rulings on Monsanto mean that Washington needs to do more in terms of material redress and symbolic recognition to promote reconciliation with the victims in Vietnam. 

First, the US government needs to expand the scope of health and disabilities programs to accommodate more Agent Orange-infected individuals. It should urge Agent Orange producers to provide financial contributions to the current assistance to Vietnam. In the absence of legal accountability, voluntary material redress at least constitutes a form of ex-gratia restorative justice (compensation made to demonstrate good intentions and not bound by legal obligation). 

Second, American leaders should strive to reach a shared understanding with the Vietnamese on the nature of dioxin toxicity and dioxin-related health effects. The United States should propose a joint comprehensive research program on this matter to develop a common list of dioxin-linked diseases and conditions experienced by both sides.

Finally, the Biden administration should engage in direct dialogue with the victims by inviting them to testify at congressional hearings or paying visits to persons with disabilities living in sprayed areas. These symbolic gestures will reassure Vietnamese victims of US commitment and allow them to articulate their thinking and feelings directly to the US government. 

President Joe Biden himself should meet with the victims. His administration champions persons with disabilities’ rights, and Biden understands what it is like to have a family member maimed by war chemicals. He reckons that his late son, who served in Iraq, contracted cancer from exposure to burn pits.

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