Agent Orange and Vietnam – a Violation of Human Rights – the Struggle for Justice

I. The chemical warfare and Agent Orange in Việt Nam

1.Why chemical warfare and the use of Agent Orange ?

During the Indochina War in the 1960’s and 70’s, the U.S. forces dropped more than 14 million tons of bombs and ammunition of all types, twice the total tonnage of all munitions dropped by all the parties involved in the Second World War - in total equivalent to the total power of 660-700 atomic bombs of the strength dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now, even 38 years after the end of the war, every day unexploded explosives still kill Vietnamese people, especially poor farmers, minority people living in the mountainous areas and innocent children.

To complement this bombing warfare and other war measures, the U.S. forces sprayed numerous toxic substances in combat as well as for experimental purposes. What were these substances? The Pentagon has refused to release details! However, the most obvious toxic chemicals used - and officially admitted by the U.S - were defoliants and herbicides, collectively known as Agent Orange, which contained Dioxin – one of the most toxic substances known to science. In even minute levels, Dioxin has devastating consequences for human health and the environment. The later context of this presentation will explain more about this issue.

2. The terrible legacies of this chemical – Agent Orange warfare 

2.1 On the people

According to the argument advocated by the United States strategists, in order to win the war in Vietnam, the most basic task is to deprive the enemies of all of their food and human supplies and resources. The use of different kind of herbicides would effectively destroy Vietnam’s forests and achieves threefold objective: (1) to deprive the enemies (VC) of their cover and efforts to produce foods for their own. (2) to deprive the farmers of their support in food and in human supplies to the enemies. (3) to force the farmers to run into the U.S. controlled areas (concentration camps and cities) and hence being available for ARVN to get new recruits. 

In Vietnam, for almost a decade (1961-1971), the U.S. sprayed about 80 million liters (20 million U.S. gallons) of this chemical, containing between 366 - 600kg of Dioxin – this does not sound very much but when you consider that it is lethal in milligrams then can understand just how massive the danger was. 

J. Stellman’s report (USA 2004) often quoted by press media indicates that Agent Orange was directly sprayed over an area up to 25% of the whole territory of South Vietnam. And, there were around 2.1 – 4.8 million people of Vietnam who were exposed to it. This report is based on the official population registry of 20 -30.000 hamlets in South Vietnam that were directly sprayed by the Air forces’ Ranch Hand aircraft. Hence, it fails to take into account many other areas that were also sprayed, including those in North Vietnam and several people who were exposed in variable circumstances and by other U.S and allied forces who applied other spraying means.

If based on its spreading ability through the air, water and food sources, the number of exposed people should be much greater, it can reach to about 20 million as estimated by certain scientists.

So far, Vietnam has had yet any complete and accurate survey. However according to the calculations reached by VAVA and certain Vietnamese scientists taken from surveys on a number of sample areas, the number of victims must be at least 3 million. 

The impact of Dioxin is not immediate - it is well known that it may spread widely through the air and other ways and impact people gradually. It has a long term effect on the human body. It damages the immune system, endocrine system and the reproductive system. New research leads to the conclusion that Dioxin also has epigenetic consequences – meaning that Agent Orange likely causes serious changes in how genes function other than those caused by changes in DNA.

Accordingly, Agent Orange may cause cancers, lung and heart conditions and many other mishaps for people who are directly- exposed - it causes miscarriages, stillbirths, and horrific birth defects for several generations of their offspring. Many children have been born with distorted body parts, without eyes, without limbs and even without mental consciousness. So, this pain is not only physical - but also mental. 

Just to mention a few! It is a common knowledge that when such systems are destroyed, people are vulnerable to any kind of diseases.

2.2 On the nature – environment 

On the basis of impacting and killing all the vegetation existing above the ground, Agent Orange in fact seriously destroyed the balance of nutrients, hydrology, vegetation, fauna and climate of Vietnam. And this is now defineed as ecocide 

Agent Orange consequently seriously destroyed and degraded natural ecosystems and biodiversity, caused economic stagnation, impeded human development. This then lead to poverty, malnutrition, diseases, and socio-economic disasters.

Before the war, Vietnam owned 10.3 million hectares of forest cover. Of about 25% of the territory was sprayed during the war, 86% was forest, 14% was crops area. As a result, 2 million hectares of forests were destroyed.

The Americans used Agent Orange not only in a widespread manner, but also in high concentrations, with repeated times (34% of the sprayed area was subject to several times of spraying) and in combination with numerous other destrutive elements (such as explosives, bombs, mines, napalm, white phosphor, tractors.) In such places, all plants and animals were destroyed, soil nutrient composition was subject to serious decline, land became barren, and therefore very difficult to recover spontaneously, landslides and erosion often occurred, weeds plants would quickly grew up and fire during the dry season was easily kindled. Due to the destruction of river basins, when the raining season comes, the level of rivers’ water rises up quickly, especially that of short rivers, the catastrophes brought about by flood has been often terribly disastrous until today. 

Agent Orange did not only directly impact animals’ health but also destroy their habitat. Many species quickly disappeared, especially those were endemic to Southeast Asia.

So, we can see that chemical warfare in Vietnam in fact took place on all levels of evolution - from the one- cell body to the species of animals, plants and human beings

II. Agent Orange and Human Rights

As above-mentioned, this Agent Orange War was ultimately aimed at attacking human beings, depriving them of not only their breath but also their minimum living conditions. 

Most of these people and their families are now living in agony and in extreme poverty, loneliness and anxiety. From the pictures that you have seen, we can say that to live in such a state, for many of them, is a life worse than death. Remember also that other millions of children have died and will die in their mothers’ wombs, a few days, weeks or months after conception.

The use of chemical warfare is a serious violation of international customary laws, especially the International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law. Since this kind of action designed during the war to attack civilians, for the immediate purpose was to force people to leave their places of residence, and to destroy their food-crops and vegetation, water sources, other means of daily life and also the nature – our common property. And for the long term strategy, it was for annihilating humans and deprives them of their right to life.

Human Rights are human natural rights not to be deprived of by anybody and by any institution. And, in contrast to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, these Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange are denied nearly of all of its specified rights. Because one of their most fundamental rights – the right to life – does not exist. 

All theories and facts have so far proved that the right to life is not only one of the most sacred right but also the root and foundation of all other rights. Without the right to life, all other human rights, including all forms of freedom are rendered meaningless.

The Americans during the time of war were well aware of this Agent Orange devilish quality, conscious of the wrongness of this action and afraid of the world’s denouncement, but they ever thought that “the good end will justify the means” and the Vietnamese in general were enemies not worth to care about. However, all of these already belong to the past, and to the former U.S. leadership. The Vietnamese have in fact set aside the past tragedy in order together with the American people to build new relationship. But, the four-decade of U.S. cold negligence shown for the sufferings and agony of three million victims of Agent Orange until today deserves to be reprimanded. This constitutes indeed an act of serious violation of the Human Rights Law. 

This violation is even more serious in the light of the United States commitment made in the Paris Peace Agreements in 1973 to help the Indochinese people to “heal the wounds of war” and later was confirmed by President Nixon’s promise to provide nearly $4 billion for this purpose, and also in contrast with the enormous payments that the U.S Government is currently providing to its Agent Orange–connected veterans 

As we all know that this chemical war did not have boundaries. It did not only kill the people of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, it also killed U.S. troops and allied forces and poisoned many areas and innocent people in various countries. So, the disaster caused by Agent Orange is a common disaster of the whole world. 

However, while the U.S. Government has been providing its veterans billions of dollars every year, and undertaking cleanups of sites where this chemical was stored, manufactured, conducting investigations to determine damage to those areas where Agent Orange barrels are suspected of being buried - both in the U.S. and in other countries such as South Korea, it nevertheless has adopted a completely different standard to the Vietnamese. 

For quite a long period of time, it had denied any discussion with Vietnam on this issue. In 2002, the U.S. Government began to mentioned it but only within the framework of scientific research. Only since FY 2008 that the U.S Congress has begun to allocate funds to support the clean-up of one of hotspots. Up to 2013, the total U.S. spending on Agent Orange issue in Vietnam is only about $45 million, meaning that the U.S. has spent only $15 for each Vietnamese victim of Agent Orange. It is important to note that this money is just for clean up - not for health care.

Such a discriminative behavior constitutes an act of violation of the first Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that specifies the equal and non-discriminative treatment. 

III. The Struggle for Justice

Vietnam has been recovered much from the wounds of war, but those ones caused by Agent Orange still remain distinct everywhere. 

Indeed, the people Vietnam with their traditional courage has wished to heal by themselves this wound of war, but its resources are limited and the agony caused by Agent Orange can not last longer and the U.S. must not evade íts responsibility. 

Moreover, currently, there are about 28 “Hot Spots” of Dioxin. And these areas are still posing daily threat to many people living within and around. Dioxin in these places continues to spread in both width and depth. The U.S. should also participate in their clean ups as soon as possible.

Regardless of all the efforts resorted by different U.S. institutions, especially the U.S. courts in trying to protect the U.S. Government and chemical companies - the perpetrators of serious war crimes and violations of human rights, the truth anyway can’s be twisted, their responsibility can’t fail to be accomplished. 

“The International People’s Tribunal of Conscience in Support of the Vietnamese Victims of Agent Orange” that consisted of well known judges held in Paris, France, in May 17th, 2009 ruled that “The time has come to provide an adequate remedy to the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange and their families and to repair as much as possible the environment of Vietnam.” 

In stead of a conclusion 

1. If an act of violations committed in the past, especially a serious one that lead to an humanitarian disaster as in the case of the use of Agent Orange still stands outside the claws of justice, then the struggle for the construction of a better society, a world with more sustainable peace, greater progress, more genuine democracy and human rights is mere an empty slogan.

2. The struggle for justice of the victims of Agent Orange is for the benefit of the whole world. Hence, we would like to convey to you all the Appeal of the Second International Conference of the Victims of Agent Orange met in Hanoi in August 8th, 2011, on the occasion of 50th Commemoration of the U.S. first use of Agent Orange in Vietnam that says 

“We ask all of humanity, all governments, organizations and individuals, whatever their social or political position, to take imm
ediate action to support all victims of Agent Orange, with particular emphasis on those in Vietnam. In every country, and in every region, we should set up organizations and develop specific programs for mobilizing material resources in whatever form and for making our voices heard in all available forums in support of the struggle of the Vietnamese Agent Orange victims for justice.”

3. We particularly call for the United States who more than any one else talks much about the respect for human rights, should understand that the first thing it has to do is to show respect for justice and be ready to fulfill its responsibility in protecting the right to life of the withering victims of Agent Orange – victims of its own creation. The Vietnamese and also American victims of Agent Orange have suffered too long! The lifetime of most of them will not last long, just in the next 5-10 years. Any assistance should be implemented as soon as possible!

Justice delayed is justice denied!

Vietnam Association for the Victims of Agent orange/dioxin (VAVA)

Délégation attending the WSF in Tunis:
M. Nguyen Van Rinh, Président 
M. Nguyen Minh Y, Director International Relations Department
M. Pham Truong, Director, Communication Department

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