The fight for Agent Orange justice in Australia

[This is the speech delivered at the Second International Conference on the Victims of Agent Orange in Hanoi, August 8-9,  by Agent Orange Justice - Australia Vietnam Solidarity Network (AOJ-AVSN) representative Hamish Chitts. Chitts was an infantry soldier with the Australian military and served in East Timor in the late 1990s. He is a founder of the anti-war veterans group StandFast in Australia.]

Agent Orange Justice - Australia-Vietnam Solidarity Network would like to thank VAVA for inviting us to this conference, for giving us the opportunity to report on the Australian struggle for justice for Vietnam’s AO victims and for the hospitality shown to our members in attendance here.

AOJ-AVSN is a very new organisation, which held its inaugural meeting in Sydney only on June 1 this year, but it’s drawing upon the experiences of peace and social justice activists who took an active part in the movement in Australia (and in the US) against the US War in Vietnam and have continued to be politically active ever since.

All in our existing small membership have been aware of the still unfolding tragedy that Agent Orange is ravaging on the environment and people of Vietnam but we didn’t have enough of a critical mass of committed members to get a campaign off the ground, until now. The equation changed with the return to Australia earlier this year of some key would-be members who had been living in Vietnam and Cambodia for many years. Though our group is new, it is able to draw from previous battles in Australia on this issue.

That earlier AO battle in Australia went like this. With Australia being part of the US-led invasion force in Vietnam, contributing 60,000 of the 3 million ground and marine US occupation forces, the toxic legacy of AO also ravaged Australia’s Vietnam veterans as it did the people of Vietnam and the US veterans. Similar to the experiences of the US veterans, their Australian counterparts also suffered en masse from their exposure to AO and had presented their case to the veterans affairs authorities in Australia in the 1970s but were shunned and had their claims rejected.

The veterans fought on and in 1983 were successful in getting the government to launch a royal commission, the Evatt Enquiry, into their case. But the 1985 report of that enquiry had granted AO an overall “not guilty” verdict despite admitting, well buried in its nine-volume report, that AO was linked to some cancers. Hundreds of pages of that report were an unacknowledged near-verbatim of the arguments presented by Monsanto, one of the main chemical profiteers that supplied the more-toxic-than-needed variety of AO for use in Vietnam.

Loyal to its “All the way with LBJ” tradition, when Washington finally enacted the Agent Orange Act in 1991, leading to the US Academy of Science’s 1993 report that concluded that AO was associated with some cancers, Canberra granted its Vietnam veterans in 1994 similar recognition and granted them compensation and medical assistance. Despite this, Australia’s official history on the US war in Vietnam is still based on the discredited “not guilty” verdict on AO and implies that Australian victims of AO just wanted money they did not deserve.

The Australian government’s part in the AO tragedy goes beyond deliberate misinformation campaigns. It allowed testing of AO during the US war just outside the town of Innisfail, in northern Queensland, and in the once industrial area of Homebush in Sydney, AO was produced by a Union Carbide factory.

There is a very bright side to this though, which is that not every Australian citizen is as conned as the government wishes them to be. As we talked to a big range of social and peace activists in the weeks before our launch, our initiative was extremely warmly welcomed, with many remarking that it is long overdue. That contributed to our successful launch in Sydney. And in our first venture to hit the street at the World Environment Day rally on June 5, our AOJ banner and stall were similarly very heartily embraced by many, many rally goers, across the age spectrum. Many of them put their names down, expressing their support. Others left their contact details with us while some others joined and wanted to be part of this young group in contributing to the Australian leg of this very important justice campaign to hold the AO perpetrators to account — Washington, its war allies and their chemical profiteering mates.

Yes, we are tiny and with very few resources, but we have justice and many intelligent people on our side who refused to be conned. Our future is bright. The future of the international campaign for justice for the victims of AO is bright.