RSN: Monsanto Court Ruling Bolsters Hope for Millions of Vietnamese Victims of Agent Orange

Tạ Thị Chuyên (middle), in Yên Khánh District of the northern province of Ninh Bình, tends to her children, who are suffering from various disabilities and illnesses as a result of their father’s exposure to dioxin during his service in the war against the US in the 1960s and 70s. (photo: VNA/VNS Photo Minh Đức)

by Viet Nam News | 29 August 18

Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange 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 cancers.

The company was ordered to pay US$289 million 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 Việt Nam.

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 Việt Nam 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 Việt Nam 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, fourty years after the war ended.

Legal fight

Quách Thành Vinh, Chief of Office and Director of Liaison Lawyers Office for the Hà Nội-based Việt Nam 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 Việt Nam. Vietnamese-based researchers established a list of 17 diseases caused by exposure to dioxin, signed by Minister of Health Nguyễn Thị Kim Tiến in 2008.

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 from VAVA 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.”

Next steps

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 Việt Nam as well as to take part in clean-up efforts and help the victims.

Merle Ratner, the American co-ordinator of the US-based Việt Nam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign, agreed that the ruling given by the US court holds “historical significance” and important implications.

Frequently hailed by Vietnamese media as a faithful friend of the Vietnamese people, Ratner has been a constant presence in the years-long legal battles against chemical manufacturers.

However, the fight against Monsanto still has a long way to go, at least until the final verdict of the appellate court is handed down, as Monsanto has already announced its intention to appeal the decision, she said in an interview.

In 2009, an international court opened in France to deal with the AO matter and Vietnamese victims. However, both the US Government and sued companies refused to appear.

On April 18, 2017, the Monsanto Tribunal in The Hague, the Netherlands, after six months of investigation and two days of testimony, decided that Monsanto was guilty of ecocide, causing long-term consequences on the ecosystem of various nations, including Việt Nam.

But Monsanto rejected the ruling.

The multinational giant, no stranger to controversy and legal suits, has always denied that it is to blame for the consequences of Agent Orange, saying that the weapon “was only produced for, and used by, the government,” and pointing out that it was just one of nine manufacturers of the same toxin supplied to the army during the period of 1965-69.

Despite claiming blamelessness, the chemical giant still agreed to settle out of court to compensate American war veterans who filed a class-action suit against the company with $180 million. Meanwhile, Vietnamese suffering continues to be disregarded.

The Vietnamese Government each year spends more than VNĐ10 trillion ($431.1 million) to provide monthly allowance and cover health care and physical rehabilitation expenses for victims of Agent Orange.

Currently, the US has organised several clean-up operations at some of their former military bases such as the Đà Nẵng airport or Biên Hoà airport, provide humanitarian assistance for people with disabilities in Việt Nam, 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 Việt Nam.

The Government of Việt Nam, in an official response last week, said it welcomed the $289 million verdict against Monsanto and asked that Monsanto, along with other suppliers of herbicides for the US Army during the bloody war in Việt Nam, offer proper redress for the Vietnamese victims.

“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,” said Vinh of the Agent Orange Victims’ Association said.