The Guardian 30 March, 2005

Yet another atrocity

Paul Matters

Thirty years after the end of the Vietnam War, the dioxins in the herbicides sprayed by the US and Australian military during the war are still killing, maiming and poisoning millions of victims in Vietnam today. Many are children dying stillborn or born with serious deformities as a result of their grandparents’ and parents’ exposure to the chemical warfare of the US imperialists and their allies including Australia.

Vietnam’s health authorities have estimated the number of Agent Orange victims nationwide at more than three million, but a Columbia University study published last year suggested that the figure is closer to five million and that the contamination is much worse than previously thought.

Victims are scattered throughout northern and southern Vietnam, where the problem was exacerbated by US and allied forces when they abandoned dioxin at numerous southern air bases. The chemical then leaked into the water table, scientists said.

On February 5, 2004, a lawsuit was filed by Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange on in a federal court in Brooklyn, against US corporations responsible for the research, manufacture and distribution of the poisonous chemicals. A group of Vietnamese plaintiffs that has grown to more than 100 victims, sought compensation and a clean-up of contaminated areas from more than 30 corporations, including the huge multinationals Dow Chemical Co and Monsanto Co, the largest makers of Agent Orange.

Both Dow and Monsanto have Australian subsidiaries which have liability that can also be litigated by victims. However, Friday March 11, US District Judge Jack B Weinstein dismissed the application, saying that the allegations that the chemical caused birth defects and illness had not been proved: “There is no basis for any of the claims of plaintiffs under the domestic law of any nation or state or under any form of international law. The case is dismissed.”

This decision, a travesty of justice, has created a storm of outrage in Vietnam and throughout the world. The head of Vietnam’s Red Cross, Professor Nguyen Trong Nhan expressed the anger and determination of the victims.

He said shortly after the decision, “Weinstein has turned a blind eye before the obvious truth. It’s a shame for him to put out that decision. We just want justice, nothing more. This is just another war that could be long and difficult, as was the Vietnam War. We are determined to pursue it until the very end, until the day we will be able to ask for justice.”

Former People’s Army solder Ngyuen Van Quy, who is being treated for liver and stomach cancer and whose two children are disabled, spoke for all sufferers when he said, “I’ll fight, not just for myself, but for millions of Vietnamese victims. Those who produced these toxic chemicals must take responsibility for their action.”

Campaign for compensation

The campaign for compensation began on March 6, 2002 when Vietnam’s Red Cross appealed internationally for urgent help for victims of Agent Orange. Professor Nguyen Trong Nhan, speaking at the close of a scientific conference in Hanoi at which it was decided to set up a joint US-Vietnamese research committee, said, “Anyone with a modest knowledge of science would know that these sort of toxic substances harm the human body and the environment”. He said many Vietnamese had “died in bitterness” without compensation.”

In 1950, in Vietnam, the French Foreign Legion — bogged down and being beaten by a guerrilla people’s war being waged by the Vietnamese liberation forces — had laboriously cleared roadside vegetation by hand, in an unsuccessful attempt to halt the devastating ambushes of their military convoys and supply lines.

A decade later another imperialist military power, the United States faced with the same problem sought the same goal as the French but with a terrible new military weapon of chemical herbicides.

Terrible new military weapon

The US military use of herbicides in Vietnam began in 1961 was expanded during 1965 and 1966, and reached a peak from 1967 to 1969. Herbicides were used extensively in Vietnam by the US Air Force to defoliate inland hardwood forests, coastal mangrove forests, and cultivated land, by aerial spraying from C-123 cargo/transport aircraft and helicopters.

Soldiers also sprayed herbicides on the ground to defoliate the perimeters of base camps and fire bases from trucks and spray units mounted on the backs of foot soldiers. Navy riverboats also sprayed herbicides along riverbanks.

Between 1961 and 1971, the US sprayed enough herbicides to cover 30,305 square miles (approx. 78,500 sq km) or 23.8 per cent of the total area of Vietnam. A total of 19,395,369 gallons (approx. 88 million litres) was sprayed by the US between August 10, 1961 and October 31, 1971.

War crime of horrific proportions

It is now a war crime under the Geneva Convention to destroy the crops and food support systems of civilian populations. Such was the international outcry and condemnation of the US and its allies chemical warfare against the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian people that Article 14 of the Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts was passed June 8, 1977:

“Protection of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population. Starvation of civilians as a method of combat is prohibited. It is therefore prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless for that purpose, objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population such as food-stuffs, agricultural areas for the production of food-stuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works.”

The Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (Protocol, Article 3) ofAugust 12, 1949, also provides the law on which the criminality of dioxin spraying against civilian populations is clearly established.

The criminality of the US government and corporations under international law in manufacturing, transporting and spraying toxic chemicals in waging war against the civilian population of Vietnam is the basis of the civil action in the US courts on behalf of the Agent Orange victims.

New generations of victims

Today, the war rages on against the sick, the pregnant, the unborn, children and the permanently disabled. Hundreds of thousands of children with genetic deformities are the innocent victims of atrocities committed long before they were born. The children are permanently disabled and will never lead a normal life. Even early in the war there were clear signs that the US and their allies were committing an atrocity of unimaginable proportions.

As early as 1964, while the spraying was increasing in Vietnam, reports circulated of increased miscarriages, stillbirths and birth defects among Vietnamese babies and animals. Records from 1970 for Saigon’s leading maternity hospital showed a staggering monthly average of 140 miscarriages and 150 premature births for every 2800 pregnancies.

An independent team of scientists from Canada, Hatfield Consultants, has recently examined land in central Vietnam and found that dioxin is still evident in the soil. “We should not think of this as an historical problem. This is a present-­day contamination issue”, team member David Levi says. “The dioxins that are present are entering the food chain today, and also being taken up by the people living in the area today.”

Children in areas that were sprayed have been found to be more than three times as likely to have cleft palates, more than three times as likely to be mentally retarded, more than three times as likely to have extra fingers or toes and nearly eight times as likely to suffer hernias. The children suffer dwarfism, impaired vision, Down Syndrome, heart disorders, enlarged heads and some deformities. Few are expected to live beyond the age of 20. Their common bond is that a parent or grandparent came into contact with Agent Orange.

Despite this and a great deal of other evidence, the US government and its National Academy of Sciences still maintain that there is no clear evidence of direct damage to human health from herbicides. The Australian government, as in everything, tags along and repeats the lies and evasions of their US bosses.

The disgraceful decision of one US court will not stop or even slow the struggle of the Vietnamese people for justice. It is in the court of the people’s conscience that this issue will be fought and won. It is a fight that all of us should support.

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