Agent Orange tribunal backs Vietnamese victims

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The U.S. government is guilty of crimes against humanity for using Agent Orange in Vietnam according to a ruling by the International People’s Tribunal of Conscience announced in Paris on May 18.

The verdict, reached after a two-day trial held May 15–16, found the U.S. guilty of violating In-ternational Law by using Agent Orange to conduct illegal chemical warfare. Millions of gallons of the chemical were sprayed over Vietnam despite knowledge that it contained dioxin, one of the deadliest substances known to science. Dow Chemical, Monsanto, Uniroyal Chemical, and 29 other chemical manufacturers were found guilty of collusion with this criminal act.

After hearing testimony from 27 victims and expert witnesses, the tribunal ruled that Vietnamese Agent Orange victims and their families are entitled to full compensation from the U.S. govern-ment and the companies that manufactured and supplied the chemical. The judgment also re-quires the defendants to restore the environment to pre-war conditions and remove all traces of dioxin from Vietnam. Additionally, it concluded that the Vietnamese State should be compen-sated for the costs of caring for victims and restoring the environment.

To implement the verdict, the tribunal advised formation of an Agent Orange Commission to de-termine the amount of compensation for individual victims as well as their families and commu-nities; to assess the amount needed to provide victims with health care, counseling, and other so-cial services; and to project the cost of studying contaminated areas and conducting clean up op-erations. The amounts would be paid into a trust fund by the U.S. government and the chemical companies.

Agent Orange is a dioxin-containing herbicide that causes a wide variety of skin diseases, can-cers, immune system disorders, birth defects, and cognitive disabilities.

The U.S. military sprayed over 21 million gallons of Agent Orange on South Vietnam from 1961 to 1971 in an attempt to deny cover and food crops to Vietnamese national liberation forces. It is estimated close to 5 million Vietnamese were exposed to Agent Orange, causing 400,000 deaths and disabilities and 500,000 birth defects. Neither the U.S. government nor the chemical compa-nies have ever compensated the Vietnamese, but they have made payouts and provided services to American victims. In 1984, a class-action lawsuit filed by U.S. war veterans against manufac-turers of Agent Orange was settled out of court for $180 million. Affected veterans received one- time, lump-sum payments averaging $3,800. They also receive benefits from the Veterans Administration.

In 2004, the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange, a Vietnam-based victim’s rights group, filed suit against 37 Agent Orange manufacturers in U.S. District Court. The court dis-missed the case in 2005 on the basis that use of Agent Orange did not constitute chemical war-fare. An additional case against the manufacturers filed by U.S. veterans in the mid-1990s was dismissed at the same time. Both dismissals were upheld by an appeals court in 2008 and an ap-peal of the Vietnamese case to the U.S. Supreme Court was dismissed in March 2009.

The People’s Tribunal was organized to keep the issue of justice for Agent Orange victims alive in the court of international public opinion despite legal roadblocks erected by U.S. courts. The tribunal was formed under auspices of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, a non-governmental organization of progressive lawyers and judges founded in 1946. The IADL has consultative status with UNESCO and ECOSOC. The tribunal consisted of an international panel of judges, chaired by Jitendra Sharma, senior advocate in the Indian Supreme Court. Panel members included Adda Bekhouche of Algeria, Judge Juan Guzman of Chile who prosecuted Augusto Pinochet, Shoji Umeida a Japanese attorney, Gavril Chiuzbaian former justice minister of Romania, Marjorie Cohn, professor of International Law, and Claudia Morcom a retired judge, both from the United States. The plaintiffs were represented by Rolan Weyl (France) and Jeanne Mirer (United States). The defendants were not present at the trial, having ignored the summons and complaint sent to them by the Peoples’ Tribunal.

Copies of the verdict will be sent to Vietnam’s State President Nguyen Minh Triet, U.S. President Barack Obama, UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon, and the UN Human Rights Committee.