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
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
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
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.