Agent Orange in Vietnam: The fight for justice continues

“I saw a plane pass with a cloud behind it. And then my whole body was drenched in a sticky powder, and I started coughing and coughing. I didn’t know that this powder that had just poisoned me was a poison” – quoted from the documentary “The People versus Agent Orange”. 

47 years after the war passed, Vietnam is still reaping the dire consequences of a war crime – the spraying of Agent Orange over South Vietnam. There are millions of innocent victims bearing the consequences of the use of one of the world’s most toxic chemicals. Even though the United States has acknowledged the need to compensate the victims and clean up the environment, it does not mean the funding processes are touching the needs of every victim. Additionally, many believe that the fact the US or any party involved has not admitted their responsibilities in the use of chemical weapons has impeded efforts to ensure justice for the victims of Agent Orange. While the governments of the two countries continued to bring compensation to those in need, many activists have strived to expose the truths of the war to the media or file lawsuits against chemical companies that produced Agent Orange. The message of these activists is clear: The spraying of Agent Orange should not be remembered as something from the past, but as a reminder to any international actors involved in conflicts to not repeat such crimes ever again. 

The consequences of Agent Orange

From 1961 to 1971, the United States sprayed over 12% of South Vietnam with over 360 kg of dioxin as a part of Operation Ranch Hand. The consequences remain a huge problem to not only the environment but those exposed to the toxin and their descendants. One of the deadliest chemicals known to science has been reported to cause massive contamination to the soil and the ecosystem of the three Indochina countries. Many species have disappeared. Forests, the shelters of millions of species, were deserted. Until this day, descendants of two to four million Vietnamese people were exposed to the toxin. According to the Vietnam Association for the Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA), an estimate of 4.8 million people in Vietnam are now the victims of congenital disabilities and many other diseases. Many continue to suffer illnesses associated with this chemical exposure, including cancers, Hodgkin’s disease, chloracne, Parkinson’s disease, porphyria cutanea tarda, ischemic heart disease, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, birth deformities, and others. 

The problems were exacerbated for families in poverty. Nguyen Phan Que Mai, a novelist, and journalist who has been researching Agent Orange shared a story of her childhood. Living in a family whose everyday concern was about what to eat that day, Nguyen started to experience the dilemma between exposing her family members to the threat of being contaminated on the one hand and continuing to starve themselves on the other. Long days of starvation forced the small family to consume whatever they could eat, regardless of whether the food was contaminated. After she became a mother, Nguyen burst out every time she had to count the numbers of her newborn babies’ toes and fingers for the fear that her children could be disabled. Nguyen’s is one among many heart-wrenching stories about the victims of Agent Orange. Until now, many victims have lost their ability to function normally, let alone work to sustain their living. 

Compensation has been increasing, but much more needs to be done

The reluctance of the United States government in funding or raising the fund amount for compensation has raised a question about the US’s double standard. However, in fact, since 2007, there have been extensive efforts from the US government to compensate the victims of Agent Orange and safeguard the environment. Specifically, the United States Congress has appropriated $231.2 million for assistance to the victims of disabilities and the environment of places attributed to dioxin. 

However, challenges remain enormous. One of the challenges was to measure the exact numbers of victims. Another problem is that in some remote areas, victims are not receiving equal attention from the funders. Concurrently, without a more specific focus on the victims of herbicide but disabled people regardless of causes, there remain thinner chances for victims to reach available assistance. While the two governments are developing the framework to address the need of more victims, many victims, their families, and activists believe that compensations are not the only means to resolve the consequences of the past. The story of Tran To Nga, who is an activist and a victim of Agent Orange, proves that the journey of fighting for justice, despite being rough, is worth pursuing. 

Justice still needs to be fought for

Tran To Nga, a Vietnamese-French national, who is a victim of Agent Orange herself, has been fighting for justice for the victims of Agent Orange. She was in a tunnel with resistance fighters in 1966 when Agent Orange was sprayed and suffered from cancer and diabetes afterward. One of her daughters died when she was only 17-months-old, while the other two bore serious health problems. Certain that Agent Orange was responsible for the tragedies she and her children have been through, Tran has worked hard to bring back justice to the victims. Tran decided to file a lawsuit against 14 chemical companies in 2015. Nevertheless, in May 2021, the court dismissed the case. Astoundingly, the court backed the companies’ argument that they were involved in a sovereign act since they were only compelled to the order of the government. The activist, however, did not want to give up. 

If one asks if justice for the victims of Agent Orange is still worth fighting for, the story of Tran proves that the answer is yes. To say this does not mean we should undermine the efforts of those working for compensation, yet fighting for justice should also mean a guarantee that we shall not forget the plight of any victims. All need to remember that “Peace is not merely the absence of war but the presence of justice” (Albert Einstein). 

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