Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Agent Orange - War Crimes lawsuit

Agent Orange is back in the news (NYT). This time a lawsuit filed on behalf of millions of Vietnamese for damages and the costs of environmental clean-up. The cost: potentially billions of dollars, or about two IWUs (an IWU is an Iraq War Unit, the cost of one week of the War in Iraq, roughly $1 billion).

Agent Orange was used in the Vietnam war to defoliate the jungle to get a better view of enemy troops. The claim in the civil suit is that American chemical companies committed war crimes by supplying the US military with this dioxin contaminated herbicide. The US government is weighing in on the side of the chemical companies, although the government is not being sued because the case has more than monetary implications.
Though the case drew little attention when it was first filed, it has become an important test of the reach of American courts, drawing worldwide interest and setting off a fierce debate among international-law experts.

"The implications of plaintiffs' claims are astounding," the government's filing said, "as they would (if accepted) open the courthouse doors of the American legal system for former enemy nationals and soldiers claiming to have been harmed by the United States Armed Forces" during war.
Not exactly. The government itself is not being sued and the issue here is not just harm, but criminal harm.

The Judge in charge of the case, Jack B. Weinstein of Federal District Court in Brooklyn, also handled a contentious 1984 class action lawsuit involving Agent Orange which was eventually settled for $180 million. Weinstein's view then that the causal relationship with cancer and birth defects was shaky was considered questionable by many and some felt he strongarmed a settlement for less than its actual value. The science since then, however, has tended to support the plaintiff's position, and in deciding to move forward this time around, Weinstein noted that it raised additional issues that might eventually have to be decided by the Supreme Court.

International Law experts representing the chemical companies defended their clients by claiming that during the Vietnam era the US didn't accept any treaty or principle that prohibited the US from using herbicides as a military instrument (but why would we expect the US government to accept such a principle during the war n Vietnam?).

Unfortunately for that position, there is precedent for a finding even in the absence of such an acceptance. Judge Weinstein himself raised it:
[Weinstein] asked from the bench whether precedents concerning the treatment of makers of Zyklon B, the hydrogen cyanide gas used in Nazi death camps, might be applicable to the claims against the companies that supplied Agent Orange to the military.

After World War II, two manufacturers of Zyklon B were convicted of war crimes and executed.
The chemical companies should be grateful this is only a civil case.