The violation of Human Rights in Vietnam War

Posted on Posted in Analyses

By Marianna Koutela, Junior Analyst KEDISA


Human rights are ethical principles that set specific standards of human behavior and are usually protected as legitimate rights under National and International law. They are considered to be “commonly perceived inalienable undamental rights that each individual is entitled to from the time of his birth simply because he is a human being”. It is the product of man’s social struggles for a dignified life without fear and deprivation and is aimed at imposing the corresponding obligations on the powerful. They have been and are a result of the constant demands of man through the great uprisings and peaceful revolutions for a human life. Human rights, therefore, are considered to be international (they apply everywhere) and preserve equality (they apply to all), and we specifically talk about the rights of: life, freedom, honor and dignity, equality, prohibition of slavery, ban of torture, protection against arbitrary arrest, detention or exile, the right to privacy and the inviolability of family asylum, health, well being, clothing, food, residence and medical care.

During a war, these rights are threatened when combatants use weapons and means of warfare that are forbidden because they seriously threaten human life.

International law limits the methods and means used to wage war. These restrictions apply to the type of weapons used, the way they are used and the general conduct of all those engaged in the armed conflict. The principle of distinction requires that parties to an armed conflict distinguish at all times between combatants and military objectives on the one hand, and civilian persons and objects on the other, and accordingly attack only legitimate targets. The main treaties placing limits on methods and means of waging war are the Hague Convention of 1907, the 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions and a series of agreements on specific weapons. The ICRC has been involved in the process of developing the law in this field. In general terms, international humanitarian law (IHL) prohibits means (certain types of weapons) and methods that cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering.

In the following, we will see a case of violation of international humanitarian law during one of the most significant wars: Vietnam war.

The Vietnam War which began in November 1955, was one of the most powerful conflicts recorded in modern history. The United States, which could not accept the spread of communism in yet another eastern country, took over the protection of the southern part of the country. However, this US move has triggered further involvement of China and the Soviet Union in the war, and thus, turned the war into one of the most deadly military conflicts whose results have been tragic.

Estimates of the number of war victims vary as the exact number was impossible to record. But apart from the disastrous conflicts and the acts of betrayal and conspiracy, which had caused huge losses the worst part was the kind of weapons used by the American soldiers. Chemical weapons, are strictly prohibited by IHL as they not only cause enormous damage to people and they are able to kill massively, but they also destroy the environment in a terrible way and can be responsible for future health problems such as teratogenicity.

During the Vietnam War, and between 1962 and 1971, the US Army sprayed 50,000,000 liters of chemical herbicides and  flame-retardant substances. The aim of this operation was the stripping of trees in the forests and rural areas, areas where the rebels found cover and food. The US Army chiefs in the major campaign against Vietnam wished to exterminate the “communist threat” and bring a quick end to the war. Then they decided to wipe out the dense vegetation of the jungle in which Vietcong found shelter and food. So they implemented the military program under the code name “Ranch hand”.

From 1962 to 1971, dozens of Hui military helicopters and C-123 interceptors made 6,542 flights and sprayed the Vietnam jungles with more than 50,000 tons of herbicide chemicals and defoliant toxic substances. Their use has been extensive and it is estimated that about 20% of the Vietnamese forest areas were sprayed at least once, sowing death and causing enormous ecological disaster. To date, these substances are related to a series of serious health problems both for local and US soldiers who have taken part in the business and have come into contact with toxic substances. The most widespread of these was the so-called “Orange Factor”. After the war, several of the airplanes carrying barrels with the Orange Factor used cargo shipments in the United States. Like veterans of the war, over the years, some of the staff that worked on them presented similar health problems, without however being compensated.

Even today, much of the land in Vietnam remains contaminated with carcinogenic dioxins. Vietnam estimates four million of its citizens suffering from diseases related to the Ranch Hand program, claiming compensation from the US government. About two years ago, with the help of the US, began in areas around the capital of Vietnam the business of soil decontamination and cleaning from toxic chemicals.

The conclusion is that the atrocities that happen during a war, encroach human rights even though they are imperative and must be respected from every country and mostly from the parties of a war. The means and the methods that were used in Vietnam war caused tremendous damages to the environment, to civilian goods but the most important was the great number of deaths, injured civilians and refugees. One of the methods such as using chemical weapons proved to be one of the most catastrophic weapon that caused external damage to the environment and the impact to civilians’ health is visible until today. International Humanitarian Law and human rights must be respected and the interests of states must not be above of human lives.


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