One plaintiff, millions of victims on all sides of an unjustifiable war and a quest for justice

May 14, 2021 - 13:35

It was profoundly disappointing to learn that a French court in the Parisian suburb of Ervy ruled it did not have the jurisdiction to judge a case involving the wartime actions of the US government.


Illustration by Trịnh Lập

By Nguyễn Mỹ Hà

It was profoundly disappointing to learn that a French court in the Parisian suburb of Ervy ruled it did not have the jurisdiction to judge a case involving the wartime actions of the US government.

In 2013, Trần Tố Nga filed the lawsuit against the companies that made the defoliant Agent Orange that was used to devastating effect by the US in Việt Nam during the American War.

If the court was unable to accept the proceedings, it seems to have contradicted itself when it announced it would hear Madame Nga's case on January 25.

Here's the issue: Nga is a French citizen and can sue foreign companies in her local courts for protection. In 2013 when she first filed her case, she listed 26 companies that made toxic chemicals used in Việt Nam War including Agent Orange (AO), but 12 of those companies no longer exist. Now there are 14 left, but Monsanto and Dow are the biggest.

Monsanto's lawyer argued the company was manufacturing AO for US government orders so the government must be held responsible and it seems the court agreed. 

One wonders why it took more than eight years and 19 hearings to reach that conclusion.

Madame Nga's France' lawyers, William Bourdon, Amélie Lefèbvre and Bertrand Repolt, who represented her pro bono, said their client intended to appeal. They said the court decision was "in contradiction with modern principles of international law".

The lawyers hoped to obtain compensation for their client who suffered diseases due to exposure to the chemical. More than that though, it would have set a precedent to compensate all who suffered due to AO.

Last week saw Việt Nam faced the beginning of the fourth wave of COVID-19 community cases. More than 500 community cases were discovered in just over two weeks.

We've all been busy following the bad news of new cases that have spread to more than 20 provinces so far, putting many places under lockdown and more than 50,000 people in quarantine, but Madame Nga's case still received support through a public exhibition on HCM City's Book Street and a roundtable discussion over the weekend.

"I am deeply touched with the exhibition 'The Agent Orange Case: One plaintiff - Million victims' and the discussion, 'The Agent Orange Lawsuit and Journey to Justice' on Book Street," Madame Nga told Tuổi Trẻ Online.

She added that the event spoke strongly for Việt Nam's quest for justice, which is also what people the world over want.

The world has not only been watching but also supporting this 79-year-old woman, whose fighting spirit remains as strong as ever despite her ailing health and age.

The French press also reported that about 300 people got together in front of the Paris Trocadero to show support for Madame Nga in her quest for justice not only on behalf of her family but the millions of other victims in Việt Nam.

So far, the three lawsuits against US companies by Vietnamese victims brought to US courts have all been rejected.

According to the Việt Nam Association of Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA), there are more than 4 million victims of Agent Orange in Việt Nam. VAVA has chapters nationwide, including both veterans and civilians who lived in sprayed areas, mobilises funding for aid relief to AO victims and represents Vietnamese victims in international courts. VAVA also filed a lawsuit in a US court but it was rejected.

Agent Orange victims in Việt Nam include Vietnamese personnel on both warring sides, locals living in sprayed areas and children and grandchildren born with different levels of deformities, cancer and other diseases to this day.

A recent article 'The Victims of Agent Orange the US never acknowledged' by George Black in the New York Times mentioned Agent Orange victims in Laos.

He detailed how 11 million gallons of Agent Orange containing dioxin were sprayed on South Việt Nam, even though herbicides containing the chemical had been banned for use by the US Department of Agriculture in 1968.

More victims of Agent Orange have also been found in Cambodia, Thailand and people of ethnic minorities living in and around the sprayed areas. Just as I was checking facts writing this column, a comment to my last Talk Around Town piece suggested, "not only the Vietnamese but Australian servicemen too." Further digging into this comment may lead to the next Talk.

Regarding the verdict on May 10, Deutsche Press Agentur (DPA) reported that: "A 79-year-old French woman of Vietnamese origin accuses the Bayer-owned US company Monsanto of having supplied the highly toxic defoliant Agent Orange, which the United States used extensively between 1961 and 1971 in the fight against the Viet Cong guerrillas.

"The plaintiff and the organisations that support her want 'ecocide' offence to be recognised internationally for the first time."

Other German media companies like the Stern magazine and Deutsche Welle also covered the event because Monsanto was founded in Missouri, the US, in 1901 and was acquired by German firm Bayer AG in 2018.

Madame Nga's fight is currently in a very tight, dark and narrow hallway as after Bayer acquired Monsanto, the latter name is slowly being vanished. Monsanto's lawyer argued that the US government had used Agent Orange for national "defence" and a foreign court cannot have jurisdiction over the matter. The lawyer also said  the then US government was solely responsible for the matter. And that government no longer exists nor can take responsibilities for its previous activities.

Speaking of taking responsibility, it wasn't today's German government that committed atrocities against humanity during WWII, but German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier called WWII a "German crime" that his nation will never forget. On a trip to Poland in 2019, he said: "I bow in mourning to the suffering of the victims. I ask for forgiveness for Germany's historical debt. I affirm our lasting responsibility."

Until a late apology, nearly 46 years late by now, is issued, Madam Nga and her supporters will keep on fighting.

The French NGO Collectif Vietnam Dioxine held a press conference after the court ruling.

With her lawyers present at the conference, Madame Trần Tố Nga reaffirmed her resolve. The fight goes on, as she will lead a procession of the March Against Monsanto on Saturday, May 15 in Paris. VNS