This week President Obama is visiting Vietnam, a historic trip which has been heralded on both sides as a watershed moment in US-Vietnam relations. The US has signaled that it is prepared to form a new partnership with the Southeast Asian nation, one that will begin with the lifting of the 30 years arms embargo. Yet, despite the progress made between the two countries, Vietnam has a very big human rights problem and the country’s government is systematically abusive of its citizens. In America’s rush to befriend the repressive Vietnamese government, it may leave behind those Vietnamese who best espouse America’s greatest ideals: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of association.
It is easy to see why the US seeks to improve its ties with Vietnam. With the threat of China looming in the east, close relations with other Pacific Rim nations may limit the influence of the awakening dragon. Indeed, one of President Obama’s hoped-for foreign policy achievements, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), aims to strengthen the ties between the two countries for the very purpose of restricting China’s economic power. The US may hope that in stemming the tide of Chinese influence it will not only bolster its own position in the world, it may also convince Pacific Rim countries to move more towards good governance and respect for human rights.
However, in the rush to establish a friendlier relationship with Vietnam it is crucial that the Obama administration not be blinded by empty promises. The TPP, for example, contains numerous provisions ensuring the dignity and rights of Vietnamese workers. Yet, even as Vietnam eagerly adds its signature to this treaty, numerous labor rights activists sit in prison. Take for example, Doan Huy Chuong and Nguyen Hoang Quoc Hung, two activists who, in 2010, were sentenced to seven and nine years, respectively, for organizing workers at a shoe factory—an activity protected under both the TPP and international human rights law.
Labor rights are not the only human rights that are suppressed in Vietnam; the right of free expression is dramatically curtailed, and the right of citizens to choose their own government is nonexistent. Father Nguyen Van Ly, an elderly Catholic priest and a strong advocate for democracy has been wrongly imprisoned for 13 out of the last 15 years. Today, despite multiple strokes, rapidly failing health and a sentence which ended in 2015, Father Ly remains behind bars.
Indeed, it would not be a stretch to say that Hanoi represses any independent voice attempting to criticize the government. Physical assaults against rights campaigners are commonplace. Most recently, in December 2015, after giving a talk about human rights, Nguyen Van Dai, a prominent lawyer, was badly beaten by about 20 assailants. A few days later he was arrested and charged with “conducting propaganda against the state.” Mr. Dai has been sitting in detention for over four months, awaiting a continually postponed trial.
The Obama administration is well aware of these political prisoners and the mounting concern of civil society over such repression. On April 26, 2016, President Obama received a letter from 19 international and domestic human rights organizations, which implored him to raise the plight of these prisoners during his visit to Vietnam. Such calls would not be unprecedented by the administration; during a recent trip to Vietnam, Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called for the government to release all political prisoners, stating that “no one should be imprisoned for peacefully expressing political views.”
Statements such as these from high-ranking officials are encouraging; however words alone will not convince the Government of Vietnam that friendlier relations with the US are only possible if it respects the human rights of its people. Moreover, the fact that the US government seems to have taken Vietnam’s signature on various trade treaties and human rights conventions as evidence of its commitment to protect such rights is worrying in light of the continuing trend of repression.
The US must make clear that a cozy relationship and the gains friendship might bring to Vietnam are contingent upon the nation demonstrating its newly-declared respect for human rights; Vietnam must make its promises in actions as well as words. It should start by releasing all political prisoners and by passing and enforcing domestic legislation aimed at protecting individuals’ freedoms of expression, religion, association, and assembly.
It’s time for Vietnam to put its money where its mouth is.