Ministerial Statement to Parliament - Crown apology to Viet Nam veterans

  • Helen Clark
Prime Minister

The Crown formally acknowledges the dedicated service of the New Zealand Regular Force personnel deployed during the Viet Nam War, and those many servicemen and women who supported them in their mission.

Further the Crown records that those armed forces personnel loyally served at the direction of the New Zealand Government of the day, having left their home shores against a background of unprecedented division and controversy over whether or not New Zealand should participate in the war.

The Crown extends to New Zealand Viet Nam Veterans and their families an apology for the manner in which their loyal service in the name of New Zealand was not recognised as it should have been, when it should have been, and for inadequate support extended to them and their families after their return home from the conflict.

The Viet Nam War was a defining event in New Zealand’s recent history, and one during which significant divisions and tensions emerged within our own society.  Old allegiances and alliances were tested, and New Zealanders began to question the role their country was playing in global affairs. 

On all sides, strong views were held with conviction.  My own party, the New Zealand Labour Party opposed New Zealand involvement in the war, and acted immediately to withdraw the troops on election to office in 1972.

Many others also spoke out, often coming under attack from the government and other establishment voices of the time for doing so.

Viet Nam itself suffered huge damage from the war – to its people, its cities and ports, and its countryside.  The consequences there have been long term and intergenerational.  Today we count Viet Nam as an Asia Pacific partner, and welcome its leaders to our shores.

Today’s focus, however, is on those who served, regardless of what our personal views on the decision to send them were.  It is time for reconciliation.

The Crown is placing on record its respect for the service of the nearly 3,400 New Zealanders who served in Viet Nam during the war between June 1964 and December 1972.   We honour the 37 personnel who died on active duty, the 187 who were wounded, some very seriously, and all those who have suffered long-term effects.  The service of those who fell and all who served in that conflict should now be honoured, alongside that of other brave service personnel deployed to other conflicts in the service of our country.

For too long, successive governments ignored concerns being raised by Viet Nam veterans.  It was the emergence of Agent Orange as a serious health and veterans’ issue in the United States which began to change the way in which issues surrounding Viet Nam veterans came to be perceived and then treated in New Zealand.

In 2003 the Health Select Committee undertook its own inquiry into the concerns raised by veterans.  It investigated whether New Zealand defence personnel had been exposed to Agent Orange.  It also assessed the health risks to defence personnel and their families, and the health services available to them.  The Committee concluded that New Zealand personnel who had served in Viet Nam had indeed been exposed to Agent Orange, and that this exposure had had adverse health effects not only for the personnel themselves, but also for their children.

A Joint Working Group on the Concerns of Viet Nam veterans was established in July 2005, under the chairmanship of the former State Services Commissioner, Michael Wintringham.  The Royal New Zealand Returned and Services Association, and the Ex-Viet Nam Services Association participated in the group. 

In their report of April 2006, the Joint Working Group proposed that the Crown apologise formally to veterans and their families for the history of pain and suffering experienced by many of them.  That recommendation was accepted as part of a wider package of measures proposed under the themes of "Acknowledging the Past", "Putting Things Right", and "Improving Services to Viet Nam Veterans".  A range of steps under each of these headings was agreed. 

Today the Crown has offered a formal apology to the New Zealand Veterans of the Viet Nam war and their families.  The Crown places on record recognition of the service of those personnel; and acknowledges the many consequences of that service, including the physical and mental health effects.  The failure of successive governments and their agencies to acknowledge the exposure of veterans to dioxin contaminated herbicides and other chemicals is itself acknowledged, as is the way in which that failure exacerbated the suffering of veterans and families.

The recommendation of the Joint Working Group report that the earlier Reeves and McLeod reports, should no longer form the basis for policies towards Viet Nam veterans and their families is accepted by the Crown.

Finally, there is the commitment to put things right, where government action is the appropriate means of achieving that resolution.  The commitments the Crown has made to the treatment of Viet Nam veterans who were affected by toxic environments in Viet Nam and to their families are set out in the Memorandum of Understanding of 6 December 2006, and the Crown will adhere to them.

In concluding, the Crown thanks the members of the Joint Working Group who provided a way forward for dealing with these troubling issues of New Zealand’s relatively recent past.  This has led to the opportunity for the Crown to put on record its thanks for, and its apology to, those brave service personnel who became the veterans of the Viet Nam war, and to pay tribute to those who never came home.  We will remember them.