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Speech: Agent Orange

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 8 Nov 2011

Adjournment speech, Tuesday 8 November 2011

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (22:20): Earlier this year, I attended the launch of Agent Orange Justice. This is the Australian section of the international campaign to hold the United States government responsible for the disaster it created for millions of Vietnamese people as a result of its 10-year spraying of the chemical weapon Agent Orange. This year, 10 August marked the 50th anniversary of the start of the chemical warfare program in Vietnam. I grew up with this war. I remember the photos of children deformed by Agent Orange. It was a shock to me to learn recently how this chemical is so stable in the soil that it is still causing terrible harm.

The international campaign by the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin is targeting the US government and the chemical companies which produced Agent Orange to pay to clean up the poisoned soil and wherever else this contaminant is found in Vietnam's environment. The campaign is also calling for adequate compensation for some three million Vietnamese who are still affected by this chemical. To date, the US has refused to accept full responsibility. In the five decades since Agent Orange was first sprayed in Vietnam, tens of thousands have died directly or indirectly from its lethal effects. Agent Orange is now claiming its third generation of victims. Nobody knows when the congenital deformities, one of the most distressing aspects of these toxic chemicals, will end. The main chemical that causes this suffering is nicknamed Agent Orange. It is a class-1 human carcinogenic dioxin and some 80 million litres of it and other, similar defoliants were sprayed or dumped by the US military on about 10 per cent of central and southern Vietnam for 10 years until 1971. Much of this was on farm land, to limit the food supply to the Vietnamese. It was also used as a defoliant to expose the transport routes that the Vietnamese used in the war. Dioxin is chemically stable. It is not diluted by water and so it does not easily decompose. While much of it has been washed into the sea over the years, much remains in concentrated forms in ecosystems and food chains. This is why it continues to claim new victims, especially among the younger generations—because of the mere fact that people, many of whom live in poverty, survive off land and water that have been contaminated by Agent Orange. There are many tragic stories here. A beautiful experience in life for a woman is to breastfeed one's baby, but I have recently heard how women in Vietnam with dioxin in their blood still can pass it on to their offspring through their breast milk.

More future generations will be victimised if the costly clean-up does not occur. There are reports that the US also sprayed Agent Orange in Laos and Cambodia and tested it in Canada. Australian troops were also involved in the use of herbicides and insecticides in Vietnam and some troops were exposed to Agent Orange. As early as 1965, birth defects in areas subjected to aerial spraying were being reported. Concerns about the use of chemical sprays and their effect on people emerged in Australia during the 1970s, shortly after the troops had returned to Australia. Veterans began reporting high incidences of cancers, while abnormalities in their offspring were also blamed on Agent Orange. A major study by the Department of Veterans' Affairs has suggested that veterans' health was indeed affected by their war service and that, with certain types of cancer, links with exposure to dioxin and other chemicals used in Vietnam did exist. It has been a long journey for these veterans to achieve this recognition, but these veterans have not received adequate compensation.

There is another worrying Australian connection. Jean Williams, a researcher who received the Order of Australia medal for her research on the effects of chemicals on US war veterans, found that cancer rates in Innisfail, in Queensland, were 10 times higher than the state average. This was linked to secret testing of Agent Orange by Australian military scientists during the Vietnam War. Ms Williams based her allegations on Australian government reports found in the Australian War Memorial museum archives. A former soldier, Ted Bosworth, backed up the claims, saying that he had been involved in the secret testing. The Queensland health department claimed that cancer rates in Innisfail were not higher than those in other parts of the state. This denial is similar to that of the US and Australian governments when lobbied to take responsibility for the damage and death caused by Agent Orange.

Action is being taken in the USA to address the crimes of chemical warfare. Congressman Bob Filner has introduced the Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act of 2011, which if passed would provide assistance for a range of social and health services. The bill, which the Vietnamese Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign assisted Congressman Filner to draft, defines 'victim' as:

… any individual who is a Vietnamese national, Vietnamese-American, or United States veteran who was exposed to agent orange, or the progeny of such an individual, and who has a disease or disability associated with this exposure.

In addition to compensating the victims of Agent Orange, this bill would also clean up toxic hot spots in Vietnam. One provision of the bill would expand programs and research for the benefit of US veterans and establish medical centres 'designed to address the medical needs of descendants of the veterans of the Vietnam era'. This creates a presumption that certain birth defects that the children and grandchildren of exposed victims suffer would be considered the result of contact with Agent Orange.

While the US government has begun to fund environmental clean-ups in Vietnam, it has refused to recognise its full responsibility to heal the wounds of war and provide assistance to Vietnamese, Vietnamese-Americans and US victims for the serious health and environmental devastation caused by Agent Orange. There has been some compensation for US veteran victims of Agent Orange but not nearly enough. In 1973, the then US President, Richard Nixon, promised $3.25 billion in reconstruction aid to Vietnam without any preconditions. However, the Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American victims of chemical warfare have not seen one penny. Congressman Filner's bill, if passed into law, will go a long way towards providing justice for all Agent Orange victims.

Another bill, introduced by US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, seeks to amend the Agent Orange Act to include Navy veterans of Vietnam who served on-board ships but not on land. Gillibrand, a Democrat from the Albany area, introduced the bill, the Agent Orange Equity Act of 2011, with a Republican, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. The bill would broaden the group of veterans eligible for compensation payments for diseases arising from exposure to Agent Orange. Considering Australia's role in the Vietnam War and the suffering of Australian troops who fought in Vietnam and were exposed to Agent Orange, bills similar to these two would be appropriate legislation for this parliament to consider passing.

Dioxin, the active and highly toxic and carcinogenic chemical in Agent Orange, causes various forms of cancers, reproductive illnesses, immune deficiencies, endocrine deficiencies, nervous system damage and physical and developmental disabilities. It is estimated that in South-East Asia, where the US bombed with Agent Orange, there are 28 hot spots. To their credit, the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin represents the interests of the victims living in Vietnam. It has set up some 'peace villages' to care for the severely disabled. The photos of these people are indeed distressing but I do recommend that senators look at them to realise the full enormity of this issue. Vietnamese-Americans exposed directly to Agent Orange, and their offspring, suffer from the same health conditions.

Fifty years is too long for a nation to suffer the impact of war. It is time to compensate the victims and to compensate them fully. I would like to thank Eva To, from Agent Orange Justice, for the briefings she has provided me on this issue. I have also drawn on the work of Law Professor Marjorie Cohn, who works with the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign, for this work. I thank her and congratulate her on the contribution she is making to international understanding of this important issue.

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