Continual pressure should be maintained on the United States and multinational chemical companies to seek justice for Agent Orange victims, two international activists have stressed.
They told Thanh Nien Daily that the spraying of Agent Orange by the US Army was an instance of a dangerous chemical that has caused devastating consequences for millions of Vietnamese citizens and the country's natural environment.
This is an undeniable fact, they asserted adding that the international community, particularly US citizens, should take appropriate action to demand long-denied reparations for Vietnamese victims.
"There should be, and for the most part there is, universal acceptance that dioxin is a dangerous chemical. The US military was responsible for the dissemination of Agent Orange and dioxin throughout southern Vietnam," said Dr. Wayne Dwernychuk, a senior Canadian environmental scientist.
"Human health studies are not necessary to determine the dangers to people in Vietnam... this has been determined, so initiation of significant cleanup at all affected former US military installations where Agent Orange was present should proceed as rapidly as possible," he said.
Dwernychuk's arguments were echoed by American activist Merle Ratner, Co-Coordinator of the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign.
Ratner quoted Professor Jordan Paust, a prominent scholar of international law, as saying, "Use of poison by any means is a war crime under customary and treaty-based international law."
Agent Orange was "both a poison and a chemical weapon, since it was used as a weapon aimed at destroying the land and depriving the people of food," Ratner added.
"While weapons of mass destruction is generally used to refer to large scale weapons like atomic bombs, I believe that chemical weapons which keep on killing and maiming from generation to generation can also be considered weapons of mass destruction," she said.
Both Dwernychuk and Ratner stressed that the right action must be being taken by the right people to redress the environment of Vietnam and the harm caused to its citizens.
"There is a saying in the environmental business... 'The polluter should pay'... in this instance, in Vietnam with dioxin contamination, the people of Vietnam should have some assistance to ease the financial, ecological, and human health burdens of the significant 'pollution' caused by the US military in their use of Agent Orange in Vietnam," Dwernychuk said.
He felt the US's refusal to pay any compensation to Vietnamese Agent Orange victims while doing so for its own veterans could have to do with avoiding legal liability "something the US has been avoiding for decades by saying there is 'no scientific link between AO exposure and health issues in Vietnam'."
Ratner pointed fingers specifically at two US major chemical companies that Vietnamese victims have filed lawsuits against, Dow Chemical and Monsanto.
"We have called for an international corporate campaign focusing on the two largest companies - Dow and Monsanto - which will bring public pressure on these corporate giants until they compensate their victims in Vietnam," she said.
She said it was unjust and immoral for these companies to deny and evade their liability towards Vietnamese victims while coming to out-of-court settlements with US veterans for "a small amount."
"We also think that the children and grandchildren of US veterans and Vietnamese Americans exposed to Agent Orange, who currently receive nothing from the US government should also get help," she said.
No respect for international law
Asked why the lawsuit brought by the Vietnamese victims against the chemical companies keeps loosing, Ratner was scathing in her reply.
"The suit brought by the Vietnamese victims lost in court because the law in the US favors property owners over ordinary people and doesn't respect international law very much," she said.
"That US veterans were able to get a settlement where Vietnamese victims were not, also testifies not to a different strategy, but to the racism of the US court system which considers people of color, in the US and especially abroad, as less deserving of justice."
The fact that the US has been reluctant to recognize its past mistakes is also quite explicable, according to Ratner.
"Speaking for myself, I would say that the US has not been willing to recognize its past crimes because it is still committing these sorts of crimes! While the US' war crimes and crimes against humanity in Vietnam were particularly heinous, it has continued committing such acts all over the world."
For the US to recognize and atone for its past crime, Ratner said "it has to reorient itself from a system based mainly on profit to a system based on the common needs of humanity."
Never give up
While Ratner said she is convinced that justice will prevail for Vietnamese victims, Dwernychuk was a little bit more cautious.
"One should not give up 'hope.' At one point in time, say 20 years ago, it was probably ludicrous to suppose the US would provide 'any' funds to Vietnam for war-related 'damage' ... it has happened, albeit miniscule, but it has happened," he said.
"The important feature of potential justice is that the Agent Orange issue is not 'put to bed', or placed in a file labeled IGNORE."
He said "addressing the 'hot spot' cleanup issue at former US bases is paramount to extract these areas out of the food chain of humans who may be living in the area, or downstream of contaminated regions. Only then will 'normal' bilateral relations exist between the two countries."
Ratner said people all over the world can also take action to support the victims of Agent Orange in many ways.
"In the US they can join the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign in working for justice and compensation from both the US government and the chemical companies by going to: www.vn-agentorange.org. In the rest of the world, they can join or start a local Agent Orange organization and put pressure on Dow & Monsanto by writing letters, demonstrating at their offices, etc," she said.
"In Vietnam, people can join with the organization representing the country's three million Agent Orange victims, the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA): http://www.vava.org.vn/"
AGENT OF TERROR
Agent Orange, named after the color of the stripe on the barrels in which the defoliant sprayed by American forces during the Vietnam War was stored, contained tetrachlorodibenzop dioxin (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 square 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.