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Americas

Franco-Vietnamese Agent Orange victim sues US chemical companies

media A US helicopter sprays Agent Orange during the Vietnam War Huey Defoliation National Archives

A Franco-Vietnamese woman has filed a lawsuit in France to ask for damages from US chemical companies that manufactured Agent Orange, the defoliant sprayed by the US air force during the Vietnam War. Forty years after the North Vietnamese seized Saigon, on 30 April 1975, effectively ending the US war in Vietnam, the physical aftermath lingers on.

Tran To Nga, 73, suffers from diabetes and a blood disorder that she transmitted to her second daughter.

Her first daughter died of heart defects when she was 17 months old.

All of these ailments are linked, according to Tran, to her contamination: as a journalist during the war she reported from areas sprayed with Agent Orange

For many years she blamed herself for her children’s illnesses.

“I asked myself, What have I done to transmit this incurable disease to my children?” she told France 24 in an interview at her home in Vietnam.

She realised she was not at fault when she visited a province 10 years ago where thousands of children and grandchildren of people exposed to Agent Orange were born with disabilities.

"Now I know that I am not at fault,” she said. “We can identify the culprit of my children’s illnesses… It’s these dioxins.”

Agent Orange, which is called that because of the orange containers it came in, contains dioxin, a carcinogen associated with birth defects and a long list of serious illnesses. An estimated three million people are victims, including the children and grandchildren of those exposed.

The companies that manufactured Agent Orange, including Monsanto and Dow Chemical, have denied its link to health problems.

In 1984 seven chemical companies agreed to a 180-million-dollar (160-million-euro) settlement with US veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange. But Vietnamese victims who took the companies to court in the US were unsuccessful.

“The case went all the way up and was refused by the Supreme Court,” explained Merle Ratner, co-coordinator of the US-based Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign.

She says legal recourse now must be found outside of the US

“The more international awareness and pressure are brought to bear against the chemical companies, and ultimately the US government, the more they will meet their responsibility to redress the public health and environmental consequences of the chemical weapons they used against the Vietnamese people,” Ratner said.

Vietnamese victims are now looking at the case filed by Tran and the Bourdon & Forestier law firm on 11 June 2014 against 26 US chemical manufacturers.

“The Untied States does not intend to take its responsibility, because it would involve a major economic engagement,” said André Bouny, president of a French support committee for Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange.

He had been looking for French victims to bring a lawsuit in France and Tran, whose father was French, fitted the bill.

He has been working with her to put together the case, which he says will be long, and technically difficult, given the number of defendants and that they are all in the United States.

Under the rules of universal jurisdiction, French courts can prosecute serious crimes, usually war crimes, which happened elsewhere.

This has been applied to situations when the perpetrator has spent time in France.

But a 2013 revision of the law paved the way for anyone with French citizenship to take a case to a French court.

Lawyer William Bourdon hopes Tran's case will help other victims get compensation.

“She can obtain reparations for herself and thus open the path for other proceedings overseas for Vietnamese civilians,” he told l’Express magazine.

Whether or not the American companies will pay attention to the French lawsuit remains to be seen.

The first hearing to set the calendar for the case was last week, on 16 April 2015.

The judge adjourned the case until June, citing the large number of defendants who need to get their legal teams together and the complexity of the case which is likely to take a long time.

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