Tuoi Tre speaks to Len Aldis, 80-year-old secretary of the Britain – Vietnam Friendship Society, who has tirelessly struggled for justice for Agent Orange victims.
What motivates your commitment to Vietnamese Agent Orange victims?
Before my first visit to Vietnam in March 1989, I had seen photographs and read about the weapons used in the war in Vietnam, in particular Agent Orange.
At that time I met with Dr Nguyen Thi Phuong, then the vice-director of Hoa Binh Village at Tu Du Hospital in HCMC, and saw the jars containing the abnormal fetuses due to Agent Orange. Witnessing it “in the flesh” really shook me up.What new challenges do you foresee in the near future?
The 10th of August will be the 49th anniversary of when the spraying of Agent Orange over South Vietnam began. For 49 years thousands of babies have died in their mothers’ wombs while those born suffered serious illnesses and physical and mental disabilities.
While in the past three to four years the US began acknowledging that some damage was done to the land, the US government and chemical companies still do not accept the direct link between Agent Orange and the damage suffered by the people.
As readers of Tuoi Tre know, many campaigns have addressed the growing number of Vietnamese victims now in the third and, perhaps, fourth generation.
Some in the Agent Orange community have been calling for a focus on rehabilitating the victims and others on legal advocacy. How would you respond to claims that going after those responsible is counterproductive?
You have to ask ‘who made the poison? Who ordered its use on the people and land of Vietnam? What’s the extent of the damage it caused on the forests, crops, rivers, lakes, fish and the people?’
There can only be one answer: Those who made it and ordered its use are guilty and must be held responsible. Bringing a criminal to justice can never be called counterproductive.
Imagine if the Vietnamese had sprayed 80 million liters of Agent Orange on New York or Texas. Would anyone deem an argument for justice for the US victims to be counterproductive?
Why is it difficult to sue the chemical companies? Should Justice Thomas have declared a conflict of interest when the Vietnamese AO lawsuit reached the US Supreme Court?
They are major international companies with links to the US government. Indeed, some members of the US governments have previously worked for the chemical companies.
In 2009 Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas was one of the seven judges who denied a petition to hear a lawsuit previously denied on appeal. He had previously worked for Monsanto, one of the defendants in the lawsuit. There was a clear conflict of interest and he should have stood down.
What would it mean for the US to take responsibility?
The US has never admitted responsibility for any war it has fought. None of the American presidents has yet to accept responsibility or apologize for the damages done in Iraq and the millions of Iraqis killed. The same holds true for Afghanistan.
Vietnam was the only Asian country that defeated the Americans just as the Americans defeated the Japanese and the French.
It was a remarkable battle for Vietnam’s freedom and independence. The American government is yet to recognize that.
They will not make any financial compensation or accept political responsibility. For political and economic reasons, it’s going to be a tremendous battle to get the American government to accept responsibility for what it did.
The US government has been compensating US veterans for illnesses related to AO including recently recognized ischemic heart disease, Parkinson's disease, and B-cell leukemia. Will this eventually lead to compensation for the Vietnamese victims?
I welcome the billions of dollars allocated by the US government to US veterans affected by Agent Orange, but then I ask why not allocate billions to the Vietnamese people on whom Agent Orange was sprayed.
One has to remember that under Article 21 of the Paris Agreement of 1973, the US agreed to pay US$3.25 billion in compensation to help rebuild North Vietnam. As you know, not one cent has been paid.
The US-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange and Dioxin estimated the clean-up and remediation cost in Vietnam at $300 million. Is the declaration a pragmatic step forward or merely a symbolic victory?
Although I welcome the Dialogues Group’s 10-Year Plan, I believe $300 million over a 10-year period is an underestimation of what is needed to repair the damage to the land and people, even just for Danang.
A worrisome detail was not addressed. On withdrawing from Vietnam, US forces gathered the remaining Agent Orange barrels and transported them in ships to burn the contents. But some damaged barrels were buried. The report does not indicate where they were buried. What if they are recovered?
What is the highest priority now in efforts to support Agent Orange victims?
Now and in the coming months all our efforts must focus on building a united campaign to bring to the international forefront, and maybe the UN General Assembly, the just cause of the Vietnamese victims.
The US House of Representatives recently approved a War Spending Bill including $12 million for dioxin clean-up at Danang Airport. Is this a step forward?
While I welcome the action, I strongly feel $12 million for the clean-up at Danang is a pitiful figure. When President Bush made a visit to Vietnam, the cost of that alone was $6 million.
The War Spending Bill allocates $66 billion, not million, to the war in Afghanistan. It just does not add up. I would suggest that the figure be reversed… $66 billion to the Vietnamese victims and nil to the war in Afghanistan.
What parallels can you draw, if any, between the recent BP spill in the US and Agent Orange use in Vietnam?
Let us remember that when the Gulf of Mexico oil rig exploded it killed 11 workers while millions of gallon of oil spilled into the seas.
Only a couple of weeks after the incident, President Obama demanded that BP set aside $20 billion to compensate people in areas affected by the oil leak.
Is it unreasonable for President Obama to demand of Monsanto, Dow Chemicals, and the other companies who made Agent Orange to set aside $50 billion for compensation for three million Vietnamese victims and their families who have been affected by Agent Orange?
You have traveled to Vietnam some 28 times. Do you foresee more trips in the future?
Yes, my visits now total 30 and each has been enjoyable and given me the opportunity to see many provinces in the country and to meet many of its people from the very north to the southeast and west.
In October I will turn 80 and wish to return to HCMC and Hanoi to celebrate the 1,000th anniversary. But most of all to meet again the many friends I have made over the years since 1989.
Is there something you would you like to tell our readers?
What do you do when you hold a child in your arms who is missing a leg, arm, or eye?
You cannot go home and forget about it. I cannot and many of my other friends cannot either. That is what keeps us more determined to continue, as long as we can, to seek justice for these people.
Thanks to you and the newspaper for doing this interview.