During my time in Vietnam, I found myself to be deeply moved by both the warmness of the Vietnamese people and the long-lasting influence of the war over fifty years later. The most recognisable by-product of the American war in Vietnam is the social, cultural and economic impact of the US’ use of Agent orange. Over the course of the war, in order to decimate Vietcong supply lines and food, America is thought to have dropped roughly 12 million gallons of the defoliant covering 12% of Vietnam’s land area. Alongside its ability to remove the leaves from trees and plants, Agent orange also contains dioxin which is widely considered in the scientific community to be the deadliest toxin known to man. It is therefore of no surprise that roughly 400,00 people were killed as a direct result of the distribution of Agent orange.
However, it is arguably the long-term impacts of Agent orange that a far more harrowing and saddening. You see, the toxin dioxin in Agent orange has been found to cause rashes, skin irritations, various forms of cancer, psychological disturbances and extreme birth defects which can last from at least the first to the fourth generation of families exposed to the defoliant. Currently there is roughly 3 million people living with cancer or other diseases due to agent orange exposure and since the war half a million children have been born with serious birth defects. Yet whilst America veterans and their next of kin have been paid a total of $180 million of compensation from the US Government and seven companies which manufactured the weapon, the hardship and ongoing struggle of the Vietnamese have been consistently ignored. Is it therefore possible that there is a lack of interest from both America and the wider international community in acknowledging the extreme suffering of the Vietnamese as a direct result of agent orange exposure? And is it possible that America has once again been able to publicly disobey international law, this time relating to chemical weapons, and has been able to get away with it purely because they are America?
Indeed there is plenty of evidence that supports this claim. For instance, as previously noted in 1984 chemical company Monsanto and several other companies agreed to a compensation package of $180 million to be paid to American veterans who may have suffered personally or their families have subsequently suffered from medical complications linked to Agent orange exposure. The conclusion reached within this court case seems to signify both an acceptance of Agent orange as a chemical weapon and an acknowledgement of guilt and responsibility from the companies hired to compose the defoliant. Yet, when a virtually identical case was finally raised on behalf of the 3 million Vietnamese suffering from the consequences of Agent orange exposure, the judge dismissed the case and sided with the chemical companies, despite the previous ruling in 1984. To justify his decision, Judge Jack Weinstein from Brooklyn, the same judge who heard the 1984 case, argued that the dropping of Agent orange did not amount to a war crime and therefore the companies held no responsibility due to their being no treaty, express or implied in the United States that conceived herbicides to be a weapon of war.
The conclusion reached within the 2004 case enabled the chemical companies such as Monsanto to deflect blame on the US government and continue to not acknowledge and pay victims of a chemical weapon they created. The narrowmindedness of the judge in this instance is staggering if he truly believes a defoliant which not only killed 400,000 people but has also detrimentally changed the lives of 3 million people can only be considered an herbicide. The discrepancies within the judicial process in America in cases related to Agent orange is clearly evident when you consider that the only two differences between the two cases in 1984 and 2004 is the nationalities of those seeking compensation and the conclusion.
Worryingly, the lack of interest in acknowledging and compensating Vietnamese victims of Agent orange is not limited to the judicial system in America. The United States Congress repeatedly heard and repeatedly struck down proposals on legislation which would give compensation to Vietnamese victims towards the end of the 20th century. In the 21st century, the flows of legislation relating to Agent orange has drastically slowed, with the most recent example being the proposed Victims of Agent orange relief act 2013 which died in Congress. The act would have directed the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, and the Secretary of Veterans affairs to provide assistance for Vietnamese individuals affected by exposure to Agent orange. However, the passing of such a bill would be an admission of guilt by the US government that they knowingly released a chemical loaded with poison on civilian populations. Of course, this is the case as even at the beginning of the Vietnam war dioxin was known to be the most toxic chemical known to man, yet justice will never be given to Vietnamese victims as an admission of knowledge by America would violate the rule of law that requires a distinction between military and civilian objects which is enshrined through The Hague Convention, Nuremberg principles, Geneva Conventions 1949, Optional Protocol of 1977 and the International Criminal Court statue. Therefore, making America completely guilty of war crimes against the Vietnamese public and yet America will never admit guilt, nor will any other country hold the US too its crimes due to its influence over the global economy, leaving victims of Agent orange uncompensated and unheard.
Reflecting upon the article, you can truly feel the hopelessness for Vietnamese victims of Agent orange seeking some form of compensation or even an apology for their suffering from America and the chemical companies. Unfortunately, however the 3 million Vietnamese living with deformities or cancer due to Agent orange exposure have joined the long list of war crimes committed by America stretching back to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima that will never be recognised, apologised or compensated for. The true irony of this unfortunate situation is that had a different country dropped Agent orange on civilians then America would likely lead the prosecution. Yet, as has become evident over time America abides by a different set of international rules and laws making it exempt from prosecution for war crimes.