Delegates to conference on long-term consequences of Vietnam War
Participants in conference workshop on public health.
From the left: Mac Thi Hoa, John Constable, Le Ke Son,
Hoang Trong Quynh, Andreas Murray.
(Photo: Lady Borton)

International experts call for major effort to
alleviate long-term consequences of war
against Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam

”In the name of humanity and simple decency, we call on the United Nations and all people of conscience and good will to support a large-scale effort to address the present and continuing impact of war on the lives, livelihoods and environment of the peoples of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.”

Thus concludes the declaration adopted by an international gathering of over sixty experts in the natural and social sciences, public health and related fields which took place in Stockholm during 26-28 July 2002. Its purpose was to review the long-term consequences of a calamity which is generally referred to as the Vietnam War, but which also afflicted Laos and Cambodia.
Legacy of destruction
Over a quarter-century has elapsed since the war's formal conclusion in 1975, and more than half the current population was born after that date. Thus, an entire generation has now grown up in an environment exposed to the massive impact of modern warfare, so that it is now possible to study the long-term implications.

Among its other effects, the Vietnam War left a legacy of environmental destruction and contamination that has yet to be thoroughly examined. For example, some 80 million litres (ca. 21 million gallons) of herbicides were sprayed on the fields and forests of Vietnam, and an unknown amount on the countryside of Cambodia and Laos. Included in those chemicals as a by-product was dioxin, an extremely toxic substance that has been linked to several forms of cancer, the birth defect spina bifida, type 2 diabetes, and disorders of the nervous, immune and endocrine systems. There may also be links to several other birth defects and reproductive disorders

Another serious and persistent problem is the enormous quantity of landmines and other unexploded ordnance left behind from the war. The victims are often children at play or farmers tilling their fields, and the results are human tragedies that affect entire families and communities. Since the war's formal conclusion, there have been at least 50,000 such deaths plus countless injuries in the three affected countries. There will be many more, for generations to come.
Unpopular subject
That appalling legacy was the focus of the Environmental Conference on Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. It followed by thirty years the first U.N. Conference on the Human Environment which took place in 1972, also in Stockholm. It was on that occasion that Olof Palme, Sweden's prime minister at the time, defied efforts by the United States to keep issues of war off the agenda, by referring to the devastation then being inflicted on Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

”The immense destruction brought about by indiscriminate bombing and by the large-scale use of bulldozers and herbicides is an outrage that is sometimes referred to as 'ecocide',” observed Palme. ”It is shocking that only preliminary discussions of this matter have been possible so far in the United Nations…. We fear that the active use of these methods is coupled with a passive resistance to discuss them.”

Thirty years later, there is still an evident unwillingness to discuss such methods and their devastating effects on the millions of human beings who are afflicted by them. It is hoped that the findings of the conference will stimulate further study and analysis of the Vietnam War's long-term consequences.

To analyze the long-term consequence of the war and related issues, subcommittees were established for each of the following main areas:

Public health
Economic and social impacts
Ethical, legal and policy issues.

The subcommittee reports may be regarded as initial attempts to deal with highly complex issues for which significant quantities and categories of data are often lacking. Furthermore, the resources available for the project were extremely limited. Accordingly, much remains to be done.

In the left column of this page are links to the subcommittee reports and other materials relating to the conference, including: the conference declaration in four languages; an “Open Forum” on a variety of matters, including Agent Orange; an “album” of photos taken by conference delegates; a “Project Review” which details the planning, conduct and outcome of the conference; and references to additional sources of information. The main documents are in PDF format, and thus require the Acrobat Reader program for display and printing. (Instructions for acquiring and using that program, are available here.)