Activist cautious as Agent Orange experts testify at US Congress

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As Vietnamese Agent Orange activists take their struggle for justice to the floor of the United States congress, a British advocate campaigning on their behalf can't be sure of the US's intentions.

The hearings on Thursday (US time) are the second time testimony on the issue is brought before the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and the Global Environment.

But as the US Supreme Court earlier this year rejected a lawsuit filed by Vietnamese victims of the defoliant seeking compensation from the companies that manufactured the chemical, Agent Orange activist Len Aldis, who has been advocating for restitutions and aid for over 20 years, has more questions than answers.

Noting via email that US court settlements have entitled US veterans to millions of dollars in compensation for their exposure to the toxic substance, Aldis pointed out the hypocrisy on the issue:

"When the US Veterans won their out of court settlement in 1984 the Judge was Judge Jack Weinstein. The Vietnamese lawsuit that lost in 2005, the judge was Judge Jack Weinstein," he said. "Why did he rule against the Vietnamese? They were suing the same chemical companies. The Vietnamese victims have the same illnesses and disabilities."

He also pointed out that part of the problem was that the major chemical companies the suits were filed against, Dow Chemical and Monsanto among others, were often feeders for the government and vice-versa.

"Monsanto is notorious for this; it is called the Revolving Door," he said. "Justice Clarence Thomas, who sat in on the AO lawsuit, worked for two years as a lawyer for Monsanto."

Aldis, the Secretary of the Britain-Vietnam Friendship Society, said the hearing provided an ideal opportunity for the congress to listen to the witnesses and actual victims to see how Agent Orange has affected them long after the war ended.

But despite US$3 million recently given to Agent Orange clean up efforts by the Obama administration, Aldis cannot be sure justice will be served by the hearings.

"If no change is made, no condemnation of the use of Agent Orange, no call for immediate compensation to the victims and their families, no call for the chemical companies such as Monsanto and Dow to be charged with war crimes, then the hearings will have solved nothing.

"The Vietnamese victims will continue to suffer and die. I sincerely hope I am wrong, but the victims have waited for over 40 years for justice. It is an insult for the chairman of the committee to ask the victims to be patient."

Drop in the bucket

Aldis said the US$3 million recently approved by the US government to assist Agent Orange cleanup in Vietnam would do "very, very little."

It has been estimated that the cleanup of the Da Nang site in central Vietnam will cost $17 million, Aldis said, adding that Da Nang is just one of several affected sites.

International agencies have recognized at least 25 so-called "hot-spots" contaminated with Agent Orange.

"It is an insult to make such an offer when millions of dollars have been paid - and rightly so - to US Veterans and their families for the illnesses caused by Agent Orange," Aldis said.

Brutal legacy

Agent Orange, named after the color of the stripe on barrels in which the defoliant sprayed by American forces during the Vietnam War was stored, contains tetrachlorodibenzo-pdioxin (known as TCDD), one of the most poisonous chemicals ever made by man.

Agent Orange has caused reproductive problems, birth defects, cancer and other diseases in affected people on both sides of the war.

Between 1961 and 1971, the US Army sprayed some 80 million liters of the defoliant, containing 366 kilograms of the highly toxic dioxin, over 30,000 sq. miles of southern Vietnam.

By the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, nearly 4.8 million Vietnamese people had been exposed to Agent Orange, causing 400,000 deaths.

Millions more have suffered devastating long-term health effects, including cancer and genetic defects.

Recently, the International Peoples' Tribunal of Conscience, which held a hearing on May 15-16 in Paris, ruled that those who manufactured Agent Orange and the government that allowed its use were guilty of ecocide and must fully compensate the victims of Agent Orange and their families.

The International Association of Democratic Lawyers, which initiated the tribunal, is also set to discuss Agent Orange issues at its 17th congress in Hanoi on May 6-10.

Ugly cover-up

The hearing this week will be presided over by Eni F.H. Faleomavaega, the subcommittee chairman.

At the testimony in March last year, Faleomavaega quoted a 1983 New York Times article which said that in 1965, "scientists from four rival chemical companies attended a closed meeting at the Dow Chemical Company's headquarters. The subject was the health hazards of dioxin," according to Faleomavaega.

"Dow Chemical did not want its finding about [the health hazards of] dioxin to be made known, fearing a 'congressional investigation,"' said the chairman, citing the Times article.

The representative elaborated on the health effects that frightened Dow by citing studies conducted in Vietnam by Hatfield Consultants:

Nearly 30 years after the war, dioxin remains in "alarmingly high concentrations in soils, foods, human blood, and human breast milk in adults and children," especially near former United States military installations.

"While research clearly shows that Agent Orange was much more hazardous than anyone would admit, the US and Vietnamese victims have not been adequately compensated, and Vietnam has not been cleaned up," said Faleomavaega.

But it was the irony and hypocrisy, often ridden with greed, that the representative said pained him so.

"Ironically, Dow Chemical Company is now doing business in Vietnam but refuses to help the victims of Agent Orange."

He continued by citing the kind of money the US wastes instead of righting wrongs like Agent Orange.

"If we can afford constructing a $900 million Embassy in Baghdad, I am sure somewhere along the line we could find more than $3 million to help the victims, these people who were exposed to this terrible agent."

He said America had a "moral responsibility" on the issue.

"We [the US] are the ones that utilized this dangerous and deadly substance against the Vietnamese people."

He said Dow Chemical Company "and every other chemical company involved ought to step to the plate and do what is right by the victims of Agent Orange," just as tobacco manufacturers have begun to own up to their false claims that smoking does not cause lung cancer.

"While war is ugly, so are the cover-ups," he said.

All talk

At the hearing last year, Scot Marciel, the then Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs under the US Department of State, defended the US against Faleomavaega's call for moral responsibility.

He said the US had no legal liability for the use of Agent Orange.

"The United States use of herbicides during the Vietnam War for the purposes of defoliating military bases, transportation corridors, and other crucial territory, and destroying enemy crops, therefore did not contravene the ban on poisons," he said.

But Faleomavaega was unimpressed by the argument.

He said he wanted to share with the secretary a word his Hawaiian cousins once taught him: "Waha."

"'Waha' means all talk but no substance," he said.

The representative from American Samoa said he wished Marciel had "the experience of going through those hospitals and seeing deformed children, not adults, children, totally innocent."


Excerpts from last year's congressional testimony of Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong:

Journals such as Chemosphere in the UK, the Journal of the American Public Health Association, and documents of the Annual International Dioxin Conference have established a link between Agent Orange/dioxin and cancerous abnormal pregnancy outcomes, such as miscarriages, fetal death, and uteral neonatal death, birth defects, et cetera.

In 1983, during the first International Conference on the Long-term Consequences of Herbicides and Defoliants Used in Vietnam During Wartime on Nature and Human Health held in Ho Chi Minh City, scientists from 22 countries, including the United States, recognized that the incidence of five categories of birth defects is abnormally high in Vietnam, as compared with the other countries in the region and in the world.

In 1970, the breast milk of mothers living in sprayed areas analyzed by biochemists in the U.S. had more than 1,500 grams of dioxin, thousands of times higher than that in the United States, Japan, Canada, and the standard level allowed by WHO.

Breast milk analyses done by laboratories in Canada and Germany still show a very high level of dioxin. Because of this, victims are increasingly millions of innocent, newborn babies, breast fed by their exposed mothers. The half-life of dioxin in the human body is much longer than in the environment, so dioxin may exert its effects over many generations of Vietnamese people.


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