51 Years After U.S. Began Chemical War on Vietnam, Be Silent, Then Take Action

For the past 51 years, the Vietnamese people have been attempting to address this legacy of war by trying to get the United States and the chemical companies to accept responsibility for this ongoing nightmare.
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By Jeanne Mirer and Marjorie Cohn

There are images from the U.S. War against Vietnam that have beenindelibly imprinted on the minds of Americans who lived through it.One is the naked napalm-burned girl running from her village withflesh hanging off her body. Another is a photo of the piles of bodiesfrom the My Lai massacre, where U.S. troops executed 504 civilians ina small village. Then there is the photograph of the silent scream ofa woman student leaning over the body of her dead friend at Kent StateUniversity whose only crime was protesting the bombing of Cambodia in1970. Finally, there is the memory of decorated members of VietnamVeterans Against the War testifying at the Winter Soldier Hearings,often in tears, to atrocities in which they had participated duringthe war.

These pictures are heartbreaking. They expose the horrors of war. TheU.S. War against Vietnam was televised, while images of the wars inAfghanistan and Iraq have intentionally been hidden from us. But whatwas not televised was the relentless ten years (1961-1971) of sprayingmillions of gallons of toxic herbicides over vast areas of SouthVietnam. These chemicals exposed almost 5 million people, mostlycivilians, to deadly consequences. The toxic herbicides, most notablyAgent Orange, contained dioxin, one of the most dangerous chemicalsknown to man. It has been recognized "by the World Health Organizationas a carcinogen (causes cancer) and by the American Academy ofMedicine as a teratogen (causes birth defects)."

From the beginning of the spraying 51 years ago, until today, millionsof Vietnamese have died from, or been completely incapacitated by,diseases which the U. S. government recognizes are related to AgentOrange for purposes of granting compensation to Vietnam Veterans inthe United States. The Vietnamese, who were the intended victims ofthis spraying, experienced the most intense, horrible impact on humanhealth and environmental devastation. Second and third generations ofchildren, born to parents exposed during the war and in areas of heavyspraying -- un-remediated "hot spots" of dioxin contamination -- sufferunspeakable deformities that medical authorities attribute to thedioxin in Agent Orange.

According the Judgment of the International people's tribunal of conscience in support of the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, the Vietnamese exposed to the chemical suffer from cancer, liver damage, pulmonary and heart diseases, defects to reproductivecapacity, and skin and nervous disorders. Their children andgrandchildren have severe physical deformities, mental and physicaldisabilities, diseases, and shortened life spans. The forests andjungles in large parts of southern Vietnam were devastated anddenuded. Centuries-old habitat was destroyed, and will not regeneratewith the same diversity for hundreds of years. Animals that inhabitedthe forests and jungles are threatened with extinction, disrupting thecommunities that depended on them. The rivers and underground water insome areas have also been contaminated. Erosion and desertificationwill change the environment, causing dislocation of crop and animallife.

For the past 51 years, the Vietnamese people have been attempting toaddress this legacy of war by trying to get the United States and thechemical companies to accept responsibility for this ongoingnightmare. An unsuccessful legal action by Vietnamese victims ofAgent Orange against the chemical companies in U.S. federal court,begun in 2004, has nonetheless spawned a movement to hold the UnitedStates accountable for using such dangerous chemicals on civilianpopulations. The movement has resulted in pending legislation HR 2634- The Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act of 2011, which attempts toprovide medical, rehabilitative and social service compensation to theVietnamese victims of Agent Orange, remediation of dioxin-contaminated"hot spots," and medical services for the children and grandchildrenof U. S. Vietnam veterans and Vietnamese-Americans who have been bornwith the same diseases and deformities.

Using weapons of war on civilian populations violates the laws of war,which recognize the principle of distinction between military andcivilian objects, requiring armies to avoid civilian targets. Theselaws of war are enshrined in the Hague Convention and the Nurembergprinciples, and are codified in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and theOptional Protocol of 1977, as well as the International Criminal Courtstatute. The aerial bombardments of civilian population centers inWorld Wars I and II violated the principle of distinction, as did thedetonation of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6and August 9 of 1945. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese people werekilled in an instant, even though Japan was already negotiating theterms of surrender.

The use of Agent Orange on civilian populations violated the laws ofwar and yet no one has been held to account. Taxpayers pick up the tabof the Agent Orange Compensation fund for the U. S. Veterans at a costof 1.52 billion dollars a year. The chemical companies, mostspecifically Dow and Monsanto, which profited from the manufacture ofAgent Orange, paid a pittance to settle the veterans' lawsuit tocompensate them, as the unintended victims, for their Agent Orangerelated illnesses. But the Vietnamese continue to suffer from theseviolations with almost no recognition, as do the offspring of AgentOrange-exposed U.S. veterans and Vietnamese-Americans.

What is the difference between super powers like the United Statesviolating the laws of war with impunity and the reports of killing ofSyrian civilians by both sides in the current civil war? Does theUnited States have any credibility to demand governments and non-stateactors end the killings of civilians, when through wars and drones andits refusal to acknowledge responsibility for the use of Agent Orange,the United States has and is engaging in the very conduct it publiclydeplores?

In 1945, at the founding conference of the United Nations, thecountries of the world determined:

  • to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
  • to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and
  • to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and
  • to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.

If we are to avoid sinking once again into the scourge of war, we mustreaffirm the principles of the Charter and establish conditions underwhich countries take actions that promote rather than underminejustice and respect for our international legal obligations. Thealternative is the law of the jungle, where only might makes right.It is time that right makes might.

August 10th marks 51 years since the beginning of the spraying ofAgent Orange in Vietnam. In commemoration, the Vietnam Agent OrangeRelief and Responsibility Campaign urges you to observe 51 seconds ofsilence at 12 noon, to think about the horrors of wars which haveoccurred. We ask you to take action so as not to see future images ofnaked children running from napalm, or young soldiers wiping out thepopulation of an entire village, or other atrocities associated withwar, poverty, and violence around the world. We urge you to take atleast 51 seconds for your action. In the United States, you can signan orange post card to the U.S. Congress asking it to pass HR 2634.This would be a good start to assist the Vietnamese victims of AgentOrange as well as the next generations of those exposed to thesedangerous chemicals in both Vietnam and the United States.

Jeanne Mirer, a New York attorney, is president of the InternationalAssociation of Democratic Lawyers. Marjorie Cohn is a professor atThomas Jefferson School of Law and former president of the NationalLawyers Guild. They are both on the board of the Vietnam Agent OrangeRelief and Responsibility Campaign.

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