Sue Kedgley: Agent Orange relentless in its horrific after-effects

Last month, I visited a Vietnamese village. What I saw was tragic. There were children with severe abnormalities. Some were blind and deaf. Some had abnormally large heads, twisted limbs, or no limbs at all. And all because of Agent Orange.

Living in this village are about 100 children whose parents, or grandparents, had been sprayed with Agent Orange. Most of the children suffer from severe physical and mental abnormalities.

Known in Vietnam as the Agent Orange Children, some have as many as five siblings with abnormalities and come from families afflicted for three generations.

It is estimated that half a million Vietnamese children have been born with dioxin-related deformities because of their parents' exposure to Agent Orange.

As we wandered around the village and saw the huge range of health effects and deformities that these children suffer from, I recalled the New Zealand Government's stance - that the evidence of inter-generational effects of Agent Orange is still largely unproved. What we saw exposed was the fallacy of this official line, frequently repeated during last year's health select committee hearings.

Most officials at the inquiry took the American and chemical company line that there is insufficient evidence that Agent Orange can cause a wide range of health effects in succeeding generations.

A handful of conditions - such as spina bifida, cleft lip, adrenal gland cancer and increased risk of suicide - have been grudgingly acknowledged over the years, but the official view is that there is no convincing evidence that Agent Orange can cause a wide range of inter-generational health effects.

These official denials are a stark contrast with the reality in Vietnam and I wish that some of our officials could see for themselves the terrible devastation Agent Orange has inflicted.

Although the Vietnamese do their best to put the war behind them, the thousands of people poisoned by Agent Orange are a daily reminder of the terrible legacy of that war and the long-term health effects of herbicides such as Agent Orange.

It is also a huge burden on the Vietnamese Government, which does not have the resources to pay for the medical expenses and rehabilitation costs for the hundreds of thousands of victims.

Astonishingly, successive United States governments have not lifted a finger to help or compensate these people. Having sprayed 40 million litres of Agent Orange over Vietnam, affecting an estimated 3.8 million Vietnamese, the Americans have done absolutely nothing to help to rehabilitate or compensate the victims. The US Government continues to deny it has any moral or legal responsibility.

When former President Bill Clinton visited Vietnam four years ago, the Vietnamese President appealed to the US to acknowledge its responsibility to detoxify former military bases and help Agent Orange victims. So far, nothing has been forthcoming.

In an out-of-court settlement in 1984, Dow Chemical, Monsanto and other companies who had made the chemicals paid $180 million compensation to foreign soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War but they have not offered any compensation to the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese whose lives have been destroyed by their lethal products.

That is why a committee representing the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange filed a class action suit last year against the companies which made Agent Orange.

New Zealand has a strong moral obligation to help the Vietnamese in their struggle to get official recognition and support for victims of Agent Orange, and support for their court case.

It should champion their cause internationally and put pressure on the US to admit responsibility for the damage it has caused to the Vietnamese people by its use of this toxic defoliant, and to provide compensation.

Although New Zealand was not directly involved in spraying Agent Orange, we fought alongside the Americans and so we are also responsible for helping solve the enormous problems we helped to create.

There are lingering concerns that New Zealand may have made some of the the chemicals that were used to poison the Vietnamese people and their land, as well as our soldiers. We need to establish once and for all - through an open and independent inquiry - whether this happened.

In the meantime, the possibility that chemicals which have poisoned generations of Vietnamese may have been made here imposes an extra obligation on us to help the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange.

The Government has apologised for various historical injustices, such as Samoans mistreated by New Zealand occupiers and Chinese mistreated on arrival here. But so far it has done nothing to apologise for participating in the Vietnam War or to help the Vietnamese victims of chemical poisoning.

We owe it to those victims, such as the grossly deformed children I saw, to help them get the compensation and aid they so desperately need.

* Sue Kedgley is the Green Party's spokeswoman on health.

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