The Vietnamese Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA) hosted the Second International Conference of Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin in Hanoi August 8-9. Attending the conference were participants from more than 20 countries and 30 organisations, including Agent Orange victims, victims of other toxic chemicals, scientists, lawyers and social activists. The conference coincided with an important historical event, the 50th anniversary of the first spraying of the toxic chemical Agent Orange, on August 10, 1961, by US forces in Vietnam.
During the Vietnam War, from 1961 to 1971, US forces sprayed nearly 80 million litres of herbicides over South Vietnam, of which 61% was Agent Orange, containing at least 366kg of dioxin, one of the most toxic substances known.
'A Threat to All'
VAVA President Nguyen Van Rinh opened the conference, saying: “Several wounds of war have been healed for Vietnam, the US and other countries, but the wounds caused by Agent Orange persist to this day. With every passing day, there are several more victims who die, suffer more intensified sickness, poverty, despair and misery – not only for those directly exposed, but for many innocent children born after the war, and not only for Vietnamese victims but also for victims of many countries. They include veterans from the US, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea, who were directly involved in the war, people in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand who lived near the Vietnamese border, people in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Latin America, Europe and other parts of Asia who lived and laboured where Agent Orange was produced, tested or stored for use in Vietnam.”
Rinh pointed out that the struggle for Agent Orange justice was linked with the people of world's aspiration to live in a sound environment and that the pain of Agent Orange victims is a common pain for all humanity. Rinh said: “From this conference we will send out warning signals to the world that the danger of modern warfare with its 'smart' weapons of mass destruction and chemical arsenals exempts no one. These criminal acts are a threat to us all!”
Veterans from both sides of the US-led war on Vietnam attended the conference. Kim Sung Wook from the Korean Disabled Veterans by Agent Orange in Vietnam War Association said that the dangers of Agent Orange were unknown to South Korean troops, who would rush out to stand under the spray, thinking it would prevent insect bites. Wook said many veterans had died in their 30s and 40s without knowing that Agent Orange killed them. Many others had committed suicide to remove the burden their illnesses placed on their families.
US veteran Michael Steele apologised for his unwitting role in the Agent Orange tragedy. As a 19-year-old helicopter door gunner, he had sprayed Agent Orange. Years later when he told another US veteran what he'd done, the other veteran replied, “If I knew what you were doing, I would have shot you down myself”. Steele said some days he wished he had been shot down, but he was now firmly committed to fight for justice for the victims.
Because dioxin attacks their endocrine, immune and reproductive systems, victims of Agent Orange suffer from multiple health conditions, some of which are quickly lethal and others of which doom people to a life of horrific misery. Children continue to be born with Agent Orange-related birth defects. Now, a fourth generation of Agent Orange victims are being born, children who did not come into direct contact with Agent Orange, but whose great-grandparents did. Heather Bowser, whose now late father was drafted into the US military, spoke of how her father's exposure to Agent Orange was transmitted to her before birth. “I am missing my right leg below the knee, several of my fingers, the big toe on my left foot, and my remaining toes are webbed”, she said.
Survivors from Canada said that the Canadian military tested Agent Orange on their own troops, beginning in the 1950s, and poisoned the people living nearby. When affected soldiers took their case to the Canadian courts, the Canadian government's successful defence was, “How can you claim your illness was from Agent Orange when the army sprayed you with 26 different chemicals?” The Canadian government spent over $8 million, Monsanto and Dow at least $24 million, to get the case rejected.
A trend emerged throughout the conference: in country after country, time after time, Dow, Monsanto and the US government have used their immense wealth and influence to crush any legal action that would make them accountable for their crimes, in many cases preventing victims' claims from getting to court in the first place.
Speaking on behalf of Hugo Chavez and the people of Venezuela, the Venezuelan ambassador, Jorge Rondon Uzcategui, said the use of Agent Orange was a crime against humanity. Even after 50 years, we can say “that the terror that came across the sea still continues to harm the noble people of Vietnam and their beautiful, fertile and martyred land”. Rondon joined many speakers in calling for the two main producers of Agent Orange, Monsanto and Dow, to be brought to justice for the moral and material relief of their victims.
Due to their inability to work and the costs of medical treatment, most victims of Agent Orange everywhere are very poor. However, because Agent Orange was intentionally directed against the Vietnamese people, they have suffered the most. Some 4.8 million Vietnamese were sprayed, many of them repeatedly over extended periods.
Agent Orange not only harmed human beings and devastated the environment of Vietnam during the war but has also continued its devastation since then. Dioxin in the soil – much of it dumped there deliberately – continues to damage the environment and sicken the people in and around several “hot spots”. Having deforested nearly 3 million hectares of land during the war, especially in coastal areas, Agent Orange has damaged not only the environment in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia but also the regional environment. It had and continues to have severe consequences for people in many areas of the world.
Members of VAVA at various levels spoke about the important work VAVA conducts in Vietnam, raising awareness of victims' issues within Vietnamese society, advocating where government and charity money should be spent and raising their own funds and providing assistance to victims. Pham The Minh, head of VAVA's chapter of Foreign Languages and Information Technology, himself a second generation victim, related how VAVA assistance had helped him overcome the obstacles of his physical disability and illness to attend university. He now teaches foreign languages and IT on a daily basis, including to victims of Agent Orange. He is active in the struggle for victims' justice and urged the world to force the US government and chemical companies to take responsibility.
Other Chemical Weapons
The conference also drew victims of other chemical weapons from northern Iraq and southern Iran. Weapons used by Saddam Hussein, but supplied to him by Western powers and multinational chemical companies, killed thousands. In the Kurdish city of Halabja, 5000 civilians were killed in a single day. Victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy in India told the story of the Union Carbide (now owned by Dow) factory that put profits before safety, resulting in the release of a highly toxic gas that immediately killed thousands of nearby residents. After this Union Carbide just ceased operations at the factory, there was no clean-up, the area is still highly contaminated and people are still dying.
As Jeanne Mirer, co-ordinator of the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign (US), said: “We come together as a powerful and growing international movement of solidarity of Agent Orange victims in Vietnam and the world over. Our solidarity encompasses all victims of chemical weapons of mass destruction – weapons which are still being used by the US government today.”
Five members of the newly formed Agent Orange Justice – Australia Vietnam Solidarity Network (AOJ-AVSN) participated in the two-day conference, with members giving speeches, sitting on the conference secretariat and assisting to draft the conference appeal. The appeal was signed by delegates and a press conference was held at the close of the conference. The following day (August 10) delegates attended an official rally in the Hanoi Opera House to mark the 50 years since Agent Orange was first inflicted on Vietnam.
The conference was a testament to VAVA and its ability to lead the global struggle for justice for all Agent Orange victims. While pitted against immensely wealthy and powerful opponents, the tenacity and leadership of VAVA and the Vietnamese people are a shining light in this growing international campaign.