Around the Institute

Obama: Include Disability in Strategic Partnership Talks with Vietnam’s President

July 23, 2013

Charles Bailey is the director of the Institute’s Agent Orange in Vietnam Program. From 1997 to 2007 he was based in Hanoi, Vietnam, where he headed the Ford Foundation’s grant making there.

This week, President Truong Tan Sang of Vietnam will be visiting Washington as only the second Vietnamese head-of-state to visit the US since 1995, when the two countries normalized relations. Over the last 18 years trade has burgeoned between the two countries. The US is now Vietnam’s largest export market. American companies have invested over $240 billion in Vietnam, which by one standard makes the US the single largest source of foreign direct investment. Trade therefore is at the top of the agenda when President Sang meets President Obama this Thursday. Vietnam is expected to be an early member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — the Obama Administration’s main instrument for promoting economic integration in the Asia-Pacific region. Vietnam and the US are also discussing a more comprehensive upgrading of the relationship through a strategic partnership agreement. 

President Sang’s visit and meeting with President Obama will be an important opportunity to celebrate the remarkable progress made in addressing the legacy of Agent Orange — a defoliant used by the US during the Vietnam War to destroy vegetation and food sources used by opposing forces.  

The effects of dioxin, a contaminant in Agent Orange, remain a controversial subject. But discussion of the Agent Orange legacy has matured in recent years from a topic of polarized views toward active bilateral cooperation; from poor understanding to clarity and specificity; and from guilt to a shared sense of responsibility for a humanitarian response. 

Seven years ago, a meeting in Hanoi between then-presidents Bush and Triet produced a joint statement with a sentence about dioxin. That single sentence opened the doors for the two countries to begin to work closely together to measure, contain, and now remediate the dioxin at the Da Nang airport — the most prominent of the dioxin “hotspots” in Vietnam and within sight of thousands of arriving visitors.  

The meeting between President Obama and President Sang on Thursday, July 25, offers the opportunity for a second breakthrough, this time on disability. US assistance in a humanitarian spirit over the past several years has helped meet the needs of people with disabilities in Vietnam, without regard to cause, and begun to build the legal framework and institutional capacities required for the longer run. Progress would be much swifter, and recognition much greater, if comments on disability services and rights were included as part of a strategic partnership agreement between the US and Vietnam. 

Vietnam has a growing number of organizations that focus on disability, and admirable policies related to mainstreaming people with disabilities. But challenges remain in putting policy into practice across the country, especially in places where the burden of disability and the needs of the disabled are the greatest. The Vietnamese will welcome the US government’s attention and concern regarding these challenges as well as the recognition of a growing partnership in this area.

The US Congress has taken positive steps in addressing this war legacy. It has been joined by many actors in a wide collaboration that has brought great progress in obtaining recognition and raising funds for cleanup and services. The Aspen Institute has played a role in furthering and expanding this collaboration, and has helped raise over $100 million over the last six years, mostly from the US government but also from multilateral institutions, other governments, philanthropies and businesses. The Institute’s US-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange /Dioxin — co-chaired on the US side by Institute CEO Walter Isaacson — has contributed to building consensus between the two governments on the extent of dioxin contamination and on steps to contain and eventually eliminate it. The Dialogue Group has also attracted donors to programs directly serving the diverse needs of some 15,000 Vietnamese with disabilities. 

It is now time for our government and the government of Vietnam, businesses, and people-to-people organizations to develop a long-term cooperative plan to mainstream all people with disabilities into Vietnamese institutions and society — in education, employment, health and other areas. Cooperative efforts by our two countries and other partners can affirm their human dignity and enhance their capacities within their communities. 

There is a role for many players, but only governments can provide the scale of resources required to make further, much-needed progress. This is a humanitarian and economic opportunity for both countries — and one that can deepen this critical strategic partnership.  

To read more about Agent Orange in Vietnam, click here to read the US-Vietnam Dialogue Group’s Plan of Action and annual progress reports, and to learn about the public-private partnerships underway in Da Nang and Bien Hoa.