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|Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange (AO) have once again had their hopes for justice rekindled. But despite the recent landmark ruling against Monsanto in a San Francisco court, major obstacles remain on the path towards justice.|
On August 11, the US court ruled that the multinational agrochemical corporation was liable for the health issues of a former groundskeeper, Dewayne Johnson, who claims that Monsato’s weed-killer product (Roundup) contains carcinogens that cause his cancer. The company was ordered to pay 289 million USD as compensation for past and future economic losses and punitive damages to the American citizen, in a closely watched case that bears many similarities to the legal battle waged on behalf of Vietnamese victims. The US chemical group Monsanto has long been associated with the Agent Orange devastation in Vietnam. It was one of the main suppliers of more than 80 million litres of herbicides which contain Agent Orange that US troops sprayed over southern Vietnam in the period from 1961-71, to clear out the dense tracts of tropical jungles that served as the hideouts of the Vietnamese military forces. Of the total volume, 44 million litres were Agent Orange, containing nearly 370 kilograms of dioxin. Studies have showed that only 80 grams of dioxin in the water supply system of a city of 8 million could kill off the entire population, still, Monsanto and other chemical groups insist that their products were not harmful to humans’ health. The Government of Vietnam estimates that around 4.8 million Vietnamese were exposed to the toxic substance. Three million people have grappled with debilitating diseases including various types of cancers, neural damage and reproductive failures. Birth deformities and mental impairments continue to haunt even the third and fourth generation of descendants of those originally exposed to dioxin, forty years after the war ended.
Quach Thanh Vinh, Chief of Office and Director of Liaison Lawyers Office for the Hanoi-based Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA), said that the court ruling set a fortuitous legal precedent that will help settle similar cases in which victims of chemical toxins seek compensation, including the association’s own case. The association filed its first class-action suit in 2004, which pinned the blame on a total of 37 US chemical manufacturers – including Dow Chemical and Monsanto. However, the case was rejected three times by American courts, which claimed that there was no legal basis for the plaintiff’s claims. The courts said that since the chemical companies produced these herbicides on request by the federal Government, they could not be held liable for their effects. The court also ruled that at that time, there was little concrete evidence establishing a causal relation between the herbicide Agent Orange and the health issues of the victims. Fortunately, recent scientific achievements have made it much easier to identify whether the illnesses were caused by the dioxin. In the US, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences has identified 13 diseases related to Agent Orange occurring in American veterans after their service in Vietnam. These 13 diseases also exist in the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange. In addition, as their immune systems were debilitated by the toxin, the Vietnamese victims also easily fell ill to a siege of other diseases that a healthy person could easily overcome. The association is gearing up for the next legal endeavours on behalf of nearly 3 million Vietnamese victims. But numerous American lawyers sympathetic to the cause and persistent in their pursuit of justice have urged Vietnamese plaintiffs to wait for a second lawsuit, Vinh said. The enlisting of American lawyers was critical as the case involves complaints against US-based companies, according to US laws and US judges will be presiding, according to Vinh. “Their expertise with the US legal system and their support for us will certainly help tip the scales in our favour.” The association, aside from litigation attempts, is still tirelessly working to bring justice to the Vietnamese victims by seeking support from influential politicians, scientists and progressive-minded people across the world, and lobbying sympathetic lawmakers in the US to draft bills asking the US Government to accept responsibility for the devastation in Vietnam as well as to take part in clean-up efforts and help the victims. Currently, the US has organised several clean-up operations at some of their former military bases such as the Da Nang airport or Bien Hoa airport, provide humanitarian assistance for people with disabilities in Vietnam, including victims of Agent Orange, but these efforts still can not fully make up for the devastation, pain and loss that Agent Orange causes in Vietnam. “No matter how difficult and prolonged this case might be, we won’t ever give up on it, for the sake of the millions of Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange,” said Quach Thanh Vinh said.