Activists hold little hope for legal justice on Agent Orange

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A legal victory for Vietnamese Agent Orange victims is highly unlikely as the US government and chemical companies work only to protect themselves, several international activists have said.

For Gunter Giesenfeld, president of the Germany -Vietnam Friendship Association, the legal battle was exhausted as the US government would never officially implicate itself in so grave a crime.

"A decision in favor of these victims would have been a decision declaring the US Army to have committed war crimes and the US government to be war criminals - a decision no US court never would dare to take," said Giesenfeld.

Al Burke, a peace activist who organized the 2002 Stockholm Conference, a gathering on the effects of Agent Orange in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, said the court system in the US would not allow justice to be done.

"The courts of the United States and most or all other countries do not deal in justice, but in law, which is something quite different," he said.

Few believe the Vietnamese victims have much chance of winning compensation from the major US chemical companies they have filed lawsuits against, such as Dow Chemical and Monsanto, even though the same companies have settled out of court with US veterans exposed to the same poison.

"It may be assumed that the companies did not agree to the settlements from a sense of moral obligation, but rather as a business decision based on a calculation of risks," Burke said.

Anjuska Weil, president of the Switzerland-Vietnam Friendship Association, also said the chemical companies had paid the US victims for practical, not moral or compassionate reasons.

"Their payment was simply a calculated one: they paid to avoid sentencing. Obviously they did not expect to be sentenced concerning the Vietnamese victims, so they did not pay," she said.

"Given the moral standards of corporations and the United States, it is a simple matter to ignore the victims of such crimes, as long as they are citizens of other countries and especially if they have brown or yellow skins," said Burke.

Different kind of justice

Despite the bleak forecast for the legal outcomes of the battle, the activists said it has made significant headway in other areas.

"The lawsuit has deeply impressed the minds of people in the whole world, recalled the issue to mankind's conscience and put the issue into the thought of - before all - younger people who didn't experience it themselves," Giesenfeld said.

Though Burke admitted there was "probably not enough money in all the world to compensate the people of Vietnam for the horrors to which they and their environment have been subjected," he said different kinds of limited justice had been served on different fronts through solidarity action and people-to-people contacts.

"But justice at the political level, and even more so at the judicial level," he said, "is far more elusive."

But no matter how elusive, Weil sees no reason to give up.

"We should join the efforts with activists asking justice for the victims of other wars and also with people watching critically the behavior of multinational companies like Monsanto, Dow Chemical and other big players making their profits at the expense of the peoples around the world."


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.

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