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    Southeast Asia
     Jul 22, 2009
COMMENT
Vietnam failing rights standard
By Maran Turner

WASHINGTON - There is much to celebrate in Vietnam these days, with substantial economic progress, reductions in poverty and deepening trade relationships all over the world, including with Hanoi's former battlefield adversary the United States. Indeed, Vietnam is still on an economic fast track, despite the global economic downturn and is quickly narrowing the gap with its richer Southeast Asian neighbors in attracting foreign direct investment.

While these efforts are impressive, Vietnam is not progressing on all fronts. Despite implementing wide-reaching economic reforms, Vietnam is still a monolithic one-party state and the country's citizens are often denied basic civil liberties, including freedom of expression, religion and association. One of the more prominent cases involves Father Nguyen Van Ly, a Roman Catholic priest

 

who was imprisoned two years ago for allegedly disseminating material that was critical of the government's limitations on religious and political freedom.

Then the communist party-led government proudly televised Father Ly's four-hour trial, even though the proceedings clearly showed that the priest was denied the right to a lawyer and legal defense. The photograph of a security officer firmly covering Father Ly's mouth with two hands during the trial emerged on the Internet as an iconic image of Vietnam's ongoing repression.

Less than four months before Father Ly was arrested in February 2007, the US State Department lifted its designation of Vietnam as a "Country of Particular Concern" (CPC) - a diplomatic label reserved for countries where governments commit ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom.

The conciliatory shift, made during the George W Bush administration, came as the US and Vietnam negotiated improved trade and investment ties. Now there are many voices in Washington calling for Vietnam to be redesignated as a CPC and several of them point to the case of the 63-year-old Father Ly, who is now in solitary confinement serving an eight-year sentence for his pro-democracy activism, as just cause for a US policy shift.

Father Ly is well known in the international community as an inspirational leader among those struggling for human rights in Vietnam. For his efforts, he has spent a combined 16 years in prison. His prior detention came after he provided written testimony to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom about the lack of religious freedom in Vietnam.

Under pressure from US policymakers and after Vietnam was designated a CPC, Father Ly served only four years of that previous 15-year sentence. But sadly his freedom was only short-lived and his ongoing detention now is complicating what have been warming diplomatic ties with Washington.

Just before the US's July 4 Independence Day celebrations, 37 US senators made a special request to Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet to uphold his government's obligations under domestic and international law and to immediately release Father Ly.

Hanoi's response has been cautionary, saying through the state media that the bilateral relationship would suffer if US policymakers continued to meddle in Vietnam's internal affairs and listened to "flawed reports" from "biased sources".

Yet the US senators pointed to what they characterized as "serious flaws" in Father Ly's trial, flaws that flouted both Vietnam's constitution and just as importantly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a multilateral treaty to which Vietnam and the United States are both party and gives each the right to expect adherence from the other.

The letter, an initiative organized by the political prisoner advocacy group Freedom Now and Senators Sam Brownback and Barbara Boxer, also requested information about Ly's health and welfare. The US Senate's letter came hot on the heels of the US House of Representatives adoption of a new resolution calling for the State Department to re-designate Vietnam as a CPC, as recommended by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

If Vietnam was judged by the US State Department to warrant a new designation, it could damage significantly US-Vietnam trade relations. Re-entering the ranks of US-designated CPCs would require President Barack Obama to take certain economic measures, which could be limited to curbs on financial assistance and loans but could also include limits on trade and contracts with the Vietnamese government.

Despite mounting Congressional calls for Vietnam's redesignation, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, now in the region to participate in an Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting where her Vietnamese counterpart will be in attendance, has so far demurred by arguing that there is not sufficient evidence of specific religious persecution to warrant a new CPC designation.

Meanwhile, Vietnam has stepped up its harassment, albeit recently of non-religious activists, including the arrest last month of prominent human-rights lawyer Le Cong Dinh, who was arrested for "distributing propaganda against the state". According to Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF), pro-democracy blogger Nguyen Tien Trung, one of the leaders of the Association of Young Vietnamese for Democracy, was arrested on July 7. RSF estimates 11 journalists and bloggers are now under detention in Vietnam.

The harshness with which the Vietnamese government continues to squash dissent may surprise those who have been distracted by the country's recent economic progress. Gross domestic product (GDP) has grown by more than 6% each year for the past five years, driven partially by the country's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in January 2007. That's allowed for deepened commercial ties with the US: since Washington lifted its trade embargo in 1994, bilateral trade has increased on average by 35% per year. Last year bilateral trade was worth US$15.7 billion.

It has been argued by proponents of enhanced US-Vietnam ties that enhanced trade relations and economic progress would bring a commensurate improvement in human rights, civil liberties and religious freedoms. Two years since Vietnem joined the WTO and nearly three years after it ceased to be designated by the US as a CPC, that progress clearly has not been forthcoming. Rather, there is growing evidence that Vietnam is backsliding on its stated commitments to uphold and respect basic human rights.

The US and Vietnam have engaged in official human-rights dialogue since 2007, though without a formal structure or measurable benchmarks for progress, and so far without concrete results.

Washington has throughout contended that it has stood firm on human-rights promotion in Vietnam, even if the volume of that call has diminished as trade and investment has increased. A re-designation of Vietnam as a CPC - if the government does indeed meet the threshold for committing severe human-rights violations - may bring new urgency to the stalled dialogue.

Maran Turner is executive director of Freedom Now and serves as pro bono counsel to Father Nguyen Van Ly of Vietnam.

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