Paris, France – The historic lawsuit between a 79-year-old Vietnamese-French woman and 14 multinational chemical companies was always going to be a legal battle between David and Goliath.
Trần Tố Nga suffers from breast cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart and lung problems, rare insulin allergy and other serious illnesses.
In 1966, then a Vietnam war journalist, she was hiding in an underground tunnel with resistance fighters.
When she briefly came out, she was first sprayed with the highly toxic herbicide, known as Agent Orange, used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.
Like many other Vietnamese, she continues to feel its destructive effects and claims to be a victim of the herbicide.
In 2014, Trần filed a lawsuit against the 14 agrochemical companies that manufactured and sold Agent Orange to the US military, including US companies Dow Chemical and Monsanto, now owned by German giant Bayer.
On Monday May 10, a French court rejected the case, calling Trần’s complaints “inadmissible” and saying she lacked jurisdiction to hear a lawsuit involving the actions of the US government in wartime.
Despite this setback, Trần remains determined to continue fighting for justice “for all victims of Agent Orange”.
“Justice and law do not go hand in hand. This has been proven today, but sooner or later it [justice] will come, ”Trần told Al Jazeera.
At Trần’s request, his three lawyers from the Parisian law firm Bourdon & Associates, who work on a voluntary basis, will appeal the verdict.
In a statement on Tuesday, they said the ruling “applies an outdated definition of the principle of jurisdictional immunity” and that the level of dioxin included in Agent Orange was the responsibility of the accused companies.
According to the Vietnamese Association of Agent Orange Victims (VAVA), the US military sprayed nearly 80 million liters (21 million gallons) of toxic chemicals during the Vietnam War between 1962 and 1971, in the part of Operation Ranch Hand, including 366 kg (740 pounds) of dioxin on a quarter of the territory of 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 as far as Laos and Cambodia. Many animal and plant species have disappeared, and after its spread to fish and shrimp, the population contaminated by dioxin.
VAVA estimates that 4.8 million people in Vietnam suffer from illnesses or have been left with disabilities following exposure to Agent Orange.
Like Trần, many Vietnamese – even two generations later – continue to suffer from illnesses related to this exposure, including leukemia, Parkinson’s disease, Hodgkin’s disease, cancer and birth defects.
Trần herself lost her 17-month-old daughter to a heart defect.
Agent Orange 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 she “remembers very well” how – as a child – her parents debated the advisability. to eat fish caught in the Mekong Delta, which was often disfigured.
They finally ate it, because they were starving and the repercussions of Agent Orange would not be known until much later.
“We use the word ‘poison’, [for Agent Orange]”Nguyen told Al Jazeera.
“I grew up in the countryside and people only use the word ‘poison’ because they knew it was poison. It could kill plants and animals, and it could kill humans.
The novelist hoped Trần would be the first Vietnamese civilian to win a lawsuit acknowledging her illnesses and cried after the verdict.
Military veterans from the United States, Australia and Korea were compensated for the effects of Agent Orange, including through Agent Orange’s $ 180 million settlement fund in 1984, but none verdict has so far only ruled in favor of compensation for a Southeast. Asian victim.
These divergent decisions saw activists describe the Trần 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 have the Americans been compensated and why not the Vietnamese? Thuy Tien Ho, coordinator of the Tr comitén Tố Nga support committee, told Al Jazeera.
Another term that emerged in the counterculture movement during the Vietnam War, and of which Trần’s lawyers accused agrochemical companies, was “ecocide” – used to describe the severe destruction of the environment.
In a statement sent to Al Jazeera, a Bayer spokesperson said he agreed with the court’s decision to dismiss the claims entirely and that wartime contractors are “not liable for the alleged damages related to the use by the government of such a product in time of war ”.
On Saturday, an annual march against Monsanto-Bayer and other agrochemical giants will take place and is expected to draw thousands of people across France.
The case of Trần is highlighted as one of the main calls for walking.
According to Thuy Tien Ho, Trần has “become a symbol” of 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 that she is still alive – Trần is the one to cheer everyone up.
Although her team were disappointed with the verdict, they saw it as a victory, as the case succeeded in raising awareness among Agent Orange victims.
“Our cause is just, and I know that if I have a just cause, it must be defended,” she said.
“What proves my cause is right is that I started out on my own, and now I am supported by hundreds of thousands of people around the world.”