Thursday, February 12, 2004

Agent Orange: Time-delayed violence

News from Agence France Presse (AFP) datelined Hanoi that was prominently bannered in the Inquirer a few days ago said: ``Three Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange have begun legal action against manufacturers of the defoliant used by US forces during the Vietnam war, a move analysts say was inevitable given Washington’s failure to atone for its use.’’

The photo that went with the story was that of a cheering Thai Thi Ha, 13, his arms raised, during a fund-raising meeting for Agent Orange victims. All over the boy’s arms and face were black spots that made him look like he had been sprayed with mud. But mud it was not. This child was among the many children born long after the Vietnam war (1961-1975) was over and who bear the scars of that shameful era. To these children have been passed on the effects of the toxin that their parents had ingested. Who knows how far down the line of generations the poison would go to maim and scar the innocents?

Last Jan. 30 the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange filed a lawsuit on behalf of the victims at the US Federal Court in New York. Named were more than 20 American companies that produced Agent Orange, among them Dow Chemical Co. and Monsanto Co. Yes, Monsanto, the manufacturer or GMOs (genetically modified organisms). These two giants have been on the dock before for other products that have been cause for worry for inhabitants of this planet.

For ten years, from 1961 to 1971, the US and their ally, the South Vietnamese military, sprayed millions of liters of toxic herbicides, among them, Agent Orange, over parts of Vietnam to destroy the foliage that covered their enemy, the communist forces. This defoliation not only affected the target areas and their population, but also those handling and spraying the defoliants.

The defoliant’s deadly component was dioxin which increases the risk of cancers, immune deficiencies, reproductive and developmental aberrations, nerve diseases and other physical defects.

US veterans have raised their voices for so long, but little was known about their Vietnamese counterparts, the women and the non-combatants especially.

I have two books that tackle Agent Orange and its effects on families, ``Agent Orange: Impact of Chemical Warfare on the Reproductive Rights of Women and Men in Vietnam’’ (2000) and ``Common Grounds: Violence Against Women in War and Conflict Situations’’ (1998) published by the Asian Centre of Women Human Rights (ASCENT) and the Research Centre for Gender, Family and Environment in Development (CGFED). Both books were published in the Philippines.

``Agent Orange’’ features 30 case studies of dioxin-exposed families. It uses photos (shot by Filipino photographer Jimmy Domingo) and, more importantly, a ``reproductive family history line’’ for each family to illustrate at what point Agent Orange figured. The research, headed by Professor Le Thi Nham Tuyet of CGFED, covered four areas in Vietnam.

The book quotes former US president Bill Clinton as saying in 1996: ``For over two decades, Vietnam veterans made the case that exposure to Agent Orange was injuring and killing them long before they left the field of battle, even damaging their children.’’ That was a pitch for the US Vietvets.

In ``Common Grounds’’ lecturer and writer Reiko Watanuki writes about the reproductive health of Vietnamese women and how dioxin damaged their life-giving potential. She cites a government report that says 19 million gallons of chemical weapons containing 170 kilograms of dioxin were used in over 3.6 million hectares of forests and rural villages in southern Vietnam. This makes Vietnam the world’s largest dioxin-polluted area. Dioxin is a typical endocrine-disrupting chemical, Watanuki said. She describes it as ``time-delayed violence.’’

Watanuko decries the fact that US government documents and even the new book ``Our Stolen Future’’ does not mention Vietnamese women. ``In the book,’’ Watanuko said, ``Vietnam should have been presented as the most significant area in which the silent accusations from the yet-to-be-born future generation are made.’’ Only the American soldiers who fought in the war were referred to, she complained.

As late as 1993, Watanuko said, The National Academy of Sciences in the U.S. was still feigning ignorance of the damage to the reproductive health of women. The harm to women has been practically ignored by the International Dioxin Conference. And yet this issue was first presented as early as 1970 at a conference in France. Professor Ton That Tung of Hanoi University said then: ``Vietnamese women are suffering from abnormal pregnancies and frequently giving birth to babies with congenital defects as a result of poisoning by dioxin contained in herbicides.’’

Defoliation operations ceased in 1971 but ten years of dioxin bombardment left a legacy of diseased and deformed human beings.

The Vietnamese government has never formally asked for compensation on behalf of the Vietnamese, but at it has stated that the U.S. has the humanitarian responsibility to help heal the wounds of war. Two years ago Vietnam and the U.S. signed an agreement for more research on the impact of the defoliants.

The suit should hasten this research. But a lot has already been done by advocacy groups. Chuck Searcy, an American aid worker in Vietnam, told AFP that ``despite the US government saying there is no scientific evidence proving the impact of Agent Orange to human health here, the evidence seems pretty overwhelming.’’

The war is long over, but Agent Orange and its ``time-delayed violence’’ continues to wreak havoc.