By Thi-Bay Miradoli, Minh Phat

Vietnamese Agent Orange victims are set to file a new lawsuit in American courts against 37 chemical companies who manufactured the deadly herbicide the US army sprayed indiscriminately in Vietnam, leaving behind generations of suffering and unrealized human potential.

Nguyen Van Rinh, chairman of the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA), made the announcement amid preparations for the second Agent Orange Day, August 10, which marks the day the US began spraying the chemical.

“We will keep fighting for justice even though we know our chances of winning the lawsuit are slim” Rinh told Tuoi Tre Friday.

The lawsuit will inspire people around the world to stand alongside the victims and generate the collective support needed to continue our struggle through political and diplomatic channels.”

A previous lawsuit against the chemical companies — including Dow, Monsanto, Hercules, Diamond Shamrock and others — was initiated in New York in 2004 for violation of international law.

It was dismissed with the court ruling that as US government contractors the companies enjoyed the same immunity as the government.

The same judge, Jack Weinstein, heard a lawsuit by US veterans affected by Agent Orange, which was eventually settled out of court for US$180 million in favor of the veterans.

In 2008, after an appeal was rejected earlier, the US Supreme Court rejected a petition by Vietnamese victims without providing any explanation. “

Justice will triumph eventually as the chemical companies were well aware of the lethal effects of the chemicals they produced,” Rinh said.

The US sprayed some 77 million liters of dioxin-laced defoliants, including 49.3 million liters of Agent Orange, over South Vietnam between 1961 and 1971.

Extensive research has linked the chemicals to cancers, disabilities, birth defects, and other ailments. More than 2.23 million hectares of land and 4.8 million civilians living in the area — not to count soldiers and non-combatants who traveled there — were exposed.

There are estimated to be three million Vietnamese suffering from exposure-related congenital deformities, chronic illnesses, and physical and mental disabilities. Rinh said 70 percent of the victims live in poverty while 90 percent do not have proper schooling and are thus unfit for employment.

Hypocrisy and worse

Though the lawsuit will be filed against the chemical companies, no one can deny the US government’s leading role in the infamy since Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson ordered the release of the lethal chemicals.

Even more insidious are the apparent links between some of the chemical companies and those nominally expected to make decisions about the compensation.

For instance, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, one of the seven judges who ruled against the Vietnamese victims’ appeal in 2009, was an attorney for Monsanto’s agriculture department for two years. However, the US has been compensating US veterans for a series of illnesses related to their handling of and exposure to AO including the recent inclusion of ischemic heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, and B-cell leukemia.

US coming around?

“I think the US is formulating financial aid through political and diplomatic channels because it is aware of its responsibility,” the VAVA chairman said.

“They just call it ‘assistance’ rather than ‘compensation.’”

During a visit to Vietnam last month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a meeting with her Vietnamese counterpart Pham Gia Khiem: “We have been working with Vietnam for about nine years to try to remedy the effects of Agent Orange.”

Many victims and advocates welcomed her statements, though they are aware much more is needed. The environment services firm Hatfield Consultants, based in Canada, and Vietnamese government estimated the cost of cleaning up AO hotspots like Bien Hoa, Da Nang, and Phu Cat airports at $59 million.

A recent joint declaration by the US-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange and Dioxin — a panel of U.S. and Vietnamese policymakers, citizens and scientists — estimated the dioxin clean-up and remediation in Vietnam to cost around $300 million.

In December 2009 USAID, the official U.S. aid agency, signed an MoU with the Vietnamese government to proceed with remediation work at Danang airport and shortly after initiated an assessment.

The US House of Representatives approved a War Spending Bill with $12 million for dioxin clean-up at Da Nang airport.

Rinh said the U.S. and Vietnam are likely to establish an Agent Orange Council to cover related affairs.

Worldwide support

The Vietnamese Agent Orange victims’ struggle to seek justice has been receiving increased support from individuals and organizations around the world.

The Britain – Vietnam Friendship Society, founded by Englishman Len Aldis, began an online petition and collected nearly a million signatures in support of the victims.

The signatures have been handed to embassies and to the White House, the secretary of the BVFS said. They are hoping to duplicate the same success with a petition addressed to President Obama at “I am hoping that by signing it people will understand they are taking part in an international campaign on behalf of people severely affected by the use of Agent Orange” Len Aldis told Tuoi Tre last week.