Paris, France – The landmark trial between a 79-year-old Vietnamese-French woman and 14 chemical multinationals was always going to be a David and Goliath legal battle.
Trần Tố Nga has breast cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart and lung problems, a rare insulin allergy, and other critical illnesses.
In 1966, then a war reporter in Vietnam, she was hiding in an underground tunnel with resistance fighters.
When she briefly came out, she was sprayed for the first time by the highly toxic herbicide, known as Agent Orange, used by the US military during the Vietnam War.
Like many other Vietnamese people, she continues to feel its destructive effects and claims she is a victim of the herbicide.
In 2014, Trần filed a lawsuit against the 14 agrochemical firms that manufactured and sold Agent Orange to the US army, including US companies Dow Chemical and Monsanto, now owned by German giant Bayer.
On Monday, May 10, a French court dismissed the case, calling Trần’s complaints “inadmissible”, and saying it did not have the jurisdiction to judge a lawsuit involving the US government’s wartime actions.
Despite this setback, Trần remains determined to keep fighting for justice “for all the victims of Agent Orange.”
“Justice and law do not go together. This was proven today, but sooner or later, it [justice] will come,” Trần told Al Jazeera.
Upon Trần’s request, her three lawyers from the Paris law firm Bourdon & Associates, who are working pro-bono, will appeal the verdict.
In a statement released on Tuesday, they said that the ruling “applies an obsolete definition of the principle of jurisdictional immunity,” and that the level of dioxin included in Agent Orange was the accused companies’ responsibility.
According to the Vietnamese Association of Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA), the US military sprayed nearly 80 million litres (21 million gallons) of toxic chemicals during the Vietnam War between 1962 and 1971, as part of Operation Ranch Hand, including 366kg (740 pounds) of dioxin across a quarter of the territory in South Vietnam.
Dioxin, contained in Agent Orange, is one of the deadliest chemicals known to science.
It contaminated the soil and destroyed the ecosystem of much of the region, stretching to Laos and Cambodia. Many species of animals and plants disappeared, and after it spread to fish and shrimp, the dioxin contaminated people.
VAVA estimates that 4.8 million people in Vietnam suffer illnesses or have been left with disabilities from exposure to Agent Orange.
Like Trần, many Vietnamese people – even two generations later – continue to suffer illnesses linked to this exposure, including leukaemia, Parkinson’s disease, Hodgkin’s, cancer, and birth deformities.
Trần herself lost her 17-month-old daughter because of a heart malformation.
Agent Orange has also left a dark mark on Vietnam’s legacy.
Dr Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, a Vietnamese novelist and journalist who writes extensively on the aftermath of the Vietnam War, said that she “remembers very vividly” how – as a child – her parents debated whether to eat the fish caught in the Mekong Delta, which was often disfigured.
They eventually did eat it, because they were starving, and because the repercussions of Agent Orange would not be known until much later.
“We use the word ‘poison,’ [for Agent Orange],” Nguyễn told Al Jazeera.
“I grew up in the countryside and people only use the word ‘poison’ because they knew it was poisonous. It could kill plants and animals, and it could kill humans.”
The novelist hoped Trần would be the first Vietnamese civilian to win a case recognising her illnesses, and wept after the verdict.
Military veterans from the US, Australia and Korea have been compensated for the after-effects caused by Agent Orange, notably through the $180m Agent Orange Settlement Fund in 1984, but no verdict has so far ruled in favour of compensating a South-East-Asian victim.
These differing rulings have seen activists describe Trần’s case as an example of “environmental racism,” a concept that emerged during the environmental justice movement of the 1970s.
“The real point is: Why these double standards? Why were the Americans compensated, and why not the Vietnamese?” Thuy Tien Ho, the coordinator of the support committee for Trần Tố Nga, told Al Jazeera.
Another term that emerged in the counterculture movement during the Vietnam War, and which Trần’s lawyers accused the agrochemical firms of, was “ecocide” – used to describe severe destruction of the environment.
In a statement sent to Al Jazeera, a Bayer spokesperson said that they agreed with the court’s decision to fully dismiss the claims and that wartime contractors are “are not responsible for any alleged damages associated with the government’s use of such a product in wartime”.
On Saturday, an annual march against Monsanto-Bayer and other agrochemical giants will go ahead, and is expected to draw thousands of people across France.
Trần’s case is being highlighted as one of the main appeals of the march.
According to Thuy Tien Ho, Trần has “become a symbol” for the fight for environmental justice in France.
While her loved ones remain concerned about her health – her two daughters call her every morning to check she is still alive – Trần is the one who lifts everybody’s spirits.
Although her team was disappointed by the verdict, she saw it as a victory, as the case succeeded in raising awareness about the victims of Agent Orange.
“Our cause is just, and I know that if I have a just cause, it must be defended,” she said.
“What proves that my cause is just is that I started alone, and now, I am supported by hundreds of thousands of people around the world.”
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