Author: Xuan Dung Phan, Tokyo International University
The lack of formal acknowledgment by the United States of the plight of Agent Orange victims is a hurdle to post-war US–Vietnam reconciliation. But a recent victim-centred approach introduced by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) offers some hope for change.
During the Vietnam War, the United States sprayed 11–12 million gallons of dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange to deprive the enemy of food and forest concealment. In areas that were sprayed, dioxin has permeated through the soil and water, resulting in ecological damage and harmful effects to human health. As of 2019, Hanoi claims that roughly 4.8 million victims suffered from dioxin-related conditions, including cancer and deformities, among other physical and neurological problems. There is mounting concern about the transgenerational transmission of health problems to children of later generations.
But Washington does not assume legal liability for Agent Orange victims. Still, strengthening US–Vietnam ties have paved the way for greater US involvement in addressing this war remnant. The United States has sponsored environmental remediation of dioxin contamination projects and provides millions of dollars each year through USAID to fund health and disability services in provinces heavily affected by the defoliant.
Many still feel that the United States has done little to reconcile with the victims and recognise their suffering. In 2008, a US court dismissed a 2004 class action lawsuit by Vietnamese victims against corporations that produced the chemical, citing insufficient causal links. Meanwhile, the US Department of Veterans Affairs dispenses billions of dollars in compensation and other benefits to Vietnam War veterans who suffer from diseases linked to Agent Orange exposure.
Controversies concerning the legal aspect have worsened recently as US courts ruled that herbicides from Monsanto, a company that produced Agent Orange during the war, are responsible for causing cancers — an assertion that the US judges rejected in the 2004 lawsuit. Last year, there were two such cases where Monsanto was asked to pay millions of dollars to American plaintiffs.
Hanoi claims that Monsanto should also be held liable for the health damage caused by Agent Orange in Vietnam. There is growing scepticism among victims regarding Washington’s commitment to come to terms with its past. The Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA) has repeatedly voiced its dissatisfaction with the lack of recognition of Vietnamese victims’ grievances.
Continued progress is still possible because judicial mechanisms are not the only means to demonstrate contrition and make amends. The United States has taken steps towards a victim-centred response that could empower affected families.
In April, USAID signed a memorandum of intent with the Office of the Standing Board for the National Committee on the Settlement of Post-War Unexploded Ordnance and Toxic Chemical Consequences (Office 701) to support people with disabilities in provinces affected by Agent Orange. The following month, USAID helped Office 701 to collect field information to better understand the needs of affected individuals and to develop constructive intervention plans.
In December USAID announced a grant to fund activities to increase the quality of life of people with disabilities in these provinces. Among the beneficiaries are Agent Orange victims, their families and VAVA members.
Unlike existing USAID funds that mainly support capacity building and improving medical infrastructure, this is the first time a direct assistance provision has been included. This is a milestone in the reconciliation process. USAID will work with local NGOs to provide ‘hospital-based/home-based rehabilitation, palliative care, home modifications, training, personal assistance services and assistive products’, among other forms of support.
Pledging direct assistance can be seen as a move by the United States to secure an emerging partner as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy, but it should also be recognised as a powerful gesture of reconciliation built upon an understanding of the victims’ needs. While criminal justice is an important concern for the victims and their families, improving quality of life is an urgent priority.
Many affected families lack the financial capacity to pursue victims’ rights and compensation claims. The Vietnamese government provides monthly stipends to these families but the payments are far from enough to sustain decent living conditions, let alone cover healthcare services.
The new USAID fund is an appropriate form of material compensation to help redress the lingering health effects associated with Agent Orange. Hanoi is likely to welcome similar efforts from Washington to ease the financial burden of medical treatments for affected families. Direct assistance programs and other ongoing dioxin remediation activities serve as indirect recognition of the victims’ grievances.
Although Washington’s recent reconciliation efforts still eschew legal redress, they represent a nascent victim-centred response that is essential for accepting responsibility and healing the wounds of war. Moving forward, we can expect more collaborations between US and Vietnamese authorities and NGOs in addressing the most visible legacy of the Vietnam War.
Xuan Dung Phan is a research student of international relations at Tokyo International University.