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Inter Press Service

End of the Road for Agent Orange Victims?

Helen Clark

U.S. Air Force planes spray the defoliant chemical Agent Orange over dense vegetation in South Vietnam in this 1966 photo. Air Force researchers found elevated risks of prostate and skin cancer and also diabetes in those who sprayed the chemical defoliant. (AP file)

HANOI - Where can Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange get justice? Probably nowhere, after the United States Supreme Court refused to hear, this month, a final appeal by Vietnamese plaintiffs against chemical giants Dow and Monsanto.

Soon after the Mar. 2 decision on the case, that began in 2004, was announced local newspapers declared that rights had been "trampled" upon, and foreign ministry spokesman Le Dung said the nation was disgusted.

Two weeks later, the issue remains in the news and in the minds of frustrated Vietnamese citizens.

The legal battle is likely over. Vietnamese plaintiffs cannot appeal again, despite promises of help from the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL), a non-governmental organization (NGO) dealing with rights issues.

U.S. courts have ruled that no link has been established between Agent Orange's active ingredient, the highly toxic dioxin, and the birth defects claimed. Both victims and the Vietnamese government claim otherwise. Moreover, under U.S. law these companies cannot be sued as they were acting under government orders.

Hope may now come from avenues of 'softer' power: friendship societies, NGOs, and increased pressure on the Obama administration.

Agent Orange has been described as one of the last hurdles in the U.S.-Vietnam relationship that is now worth over 15 billion US dollars in two-way trade. In reality, it may be less than a hurdle, but the government knows that an angry response is better than none.

"The current leadership does not want to make this an impediment or hurdle in the bilateral relationship but it faces a domestic constituency that demands some compensation," said Carl Thayer of the Australian Defense Force Academy over e-mail. "[But] the condemnation by the state-controlled media and by government officials is an expression of genuine frustration."

The outlook is not entirely grim. The U.S. government in 2007 earmarked three million dollars as part of a cleanup effort in particularly affected hotspots, such as where the chemical was stored.

Targeted was the former U.S. airbase at Danang city and now an airport serving the coastal tourist area. Hatfield Consultants, Canada, which conducted soil tests in 2007, turned up results that showed levels of toxic matter 400 times higher than acceptable levels.

"I see a potential unspoken linkage between the U.S. addressing the legacy of Agent Orange and gradually improved security-defense ties. The Agent Orange issue gives the U.S. a possible avenue of influence on the Vietnamese political system and society at large," continued Thayer.

Some hold out hopes that the Obama administration will pursue the matter. Len Aldis, secretary of the Britain-Vietnam Friendship Society, has written two open letters to President Barack Obama, the second one protesting the Mar. 2 ruling.

Aldis wrote: "Despite the court ruling you have the authority to make a policy that will give financial compensation to the victims of Agent Orange and to their families. It is your moral obligation. Sooner or later, it has to be done."

Agent Orange is a chemical defoliant. Over 80 million lt were dropped on south and central Vietnam to deny communist forces cover, and give clear sight to army bases fearing attacks.

Agent Orange contains dioxin, the most deadly substance known. In lab experiments scientists have found even a few parts per trillion dangerous.

Though granting compensation worth 180 million dollars to veterans in 1984 in an out-of-court settlement, the U.S. government denies that dioxin causes birth defects. The Vietnamese government says otherwise and estimates that four million citizens are Agent Orange-affected.

Despite its inevitability this loss is disheartening for many.

‘Doc' Bernie Duff, a U.S. veteran who walked the length of the country last year to raise awareness about Agent Orange and will do so again in less than a month, told IPS via e-mail, "I was hoping that this blot could at last be removed... as a U.S. veteran I have watched many of my compatriots suffer and often die as a result of the use of that chemical compound."

People in Vietnam do feel strongly about Agent Orange, though they aver they no longer care about the war that spawned its usage. That is history. The children born with deformities and the remaining cancer-stricken veterans are not.

The government believes that Agent Orange has affected the third generation, with sick and deformed children born to people sprayed during the conflict. They feel an innocent second, or third, generation should not suffer needlessly.

"There's never enough help. These families have no bright future. There are economic costs and it also affects their spirit and their mind," Vu Hai Thai, a 23-year-old banking student, told IPS. "The court judgment wasn't fair. But it [Agent Orange] is a past story now."

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