Long after the last bullet has been fired in a war, unexploded bombs, landmines and toxic chemicals continue to maim and kill civilians. This is particularly true of the Vietnam war. Three decades after US soldiers and diplomats scrambled aboard the last planes out of Saigon in April 1975, the toxins they left behind still poison Vietnam. Relations with the United States have been normalized since the 1990s, but the denial of justice to the victims of Agent Orange remains a major bone of contention.
Not only are Vietnamese still maimed from treading on unexploded bombs, they are also victims of this insidious scourge that poisons water and food supplies, causing various cancers and crippling deformities. Eighty million liters of Agent Orange were sprayed on the jungles of Vietnam, destroying swathes of irreplaceable rainforest through massive defoliation and leaving a toxic trail of dioxin contamination in the soil for decades. The legacy of this chemical warfare can even be inflicted on the unborn, with Agent Orange birth deformities now being passed on to a third generation.
In the 3,160 villages in the southern part of Vietnam within the Agent Orange spraying zone, 800,000 people continue to suffer serious health problems and are in need of constant medical attention. Last month, members of a US Vietnamese working group reported that it will cost at least $14 million to remove dioxin residues from just one site around the former US airbase in Danang. The cost of a comprehensive clean-up around three dioxin hot spots and former US bases is estimated at around $60 million. The $3 million pledged by US Congress last year is a pathetically inadequate amount set against the billions spent in waging war and deploying weapons of mass destruction.
The recent study of one Agent Orange hot spot, the former US airbase in Danang, found dioxin levels 300 to 400 times higher than internationally accepted limits. The study confirmed that rainwater had carried dioxin into city drains and into a neighboring community that is home to more than 100,000 people.
Dr Arnold Schecter, a leading expert in dioxin contamination in the US, sampled the soil around former US airbase in Bien Hoa in 2003 and found dioxin levels that were 180 times above the safe level set by the US environmental protection agency. The US government was aware of these findings (pdf) back in 2003.
The US government's Veterans Administration officially recognizes 13 medical conditions linked to Agent Orange and provides free medical treatment to US soldiers who can prove their exposure to the herbicide. But Washington has adamantly denied all responsibility and evaded any kind of accountability for the estimated four million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians who suffered far greater exposure to the dioxin than the US war veterans.
In February 2004, the Vietnamese Association of Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA) filed a class action law suit in a New York court, against Monsanto, Dow Chemicals and 35 other manufacturers of the herbicides deployed in Vietnam. The plaintiffs and their lawyers deliberately chose the very same court that had presided over the only previous lawsuit brought against Agent Orange manufacturers, by US war veterans.
The original lawsuit was settled in 1984, when seven American chemical companies paid out $180 million to 291,000 US citizens over a period of 12 years. The out-of-court settlement was linked to a let-out clause for the chemical companies that refused to accept liability, claiming the science did not prove that Agent Orange was the cause of a diverse range of cancers, autoimmune diseases and birth deformities. In 2005, a US court predictably rejected the Vietnamese claim for massive compensation in respect of war crimes and crimes against humanity inflicted on the civilian population. It is still being appealed in the US courts.
Why has Washington been so doggedly determined to deny any compensation to Vietnamese victims, even refusing to come up with humanitarian aid? A clue can be found in the intervention of the White House counsel in the Vietnamese lawsuit against the chemical companies. The US government intervened to argue that if the court permitted the case to prosper, it would undermine national security and limit presidential options in a time of war.
In the New York Court Seth Waxman, defense counsel for the chemical companies, argued there was a lack of legal precedent for punishing those who used poisons during warfare, and said US battlefield decisions could be harmed. "This does affect our ongoing diplomacy," he said, citing the use of depleted uranium shells by US forces in Iraq.
To accept US responsibility for Agent Orange could expose Washington to claims relating to the use of napalm, phosphorous bombs and various My Lai-type massacres.
Tragically, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese victims are denied compensation because the US government and its military want no limits placed on their arsenal of weapons, and few restrictions on their methods of interrogation and torture. They are also deeply anxious to guarantee that international justice is confined to putting developing nations and other weak regimes in the dock -- Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Serbia. The US government, in refusing to sign up to the international criminal court, has ensured that they are beyond the reach of international law.
A London-born journalist, Tom Fawthrop has extensively covered the developing world. He has been working in South-East Asia for the past 25 years and is currently based in Chiangmai, Thailand.
He is co-author of Getting away with Genocide, the history of the Cambodia Tribunal.