Hanoi must improve its human rights record if it expects to build closer economic ties with Washington, a U.S. lawmaker visiting Vietnam said Thursday, ahead of an annual round of talks between the two nations.
Democratic Congressman Alan Lowenthal of California, who represents the largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam, said that meetings with dissidents and members of civil society in the country over the last week had convinced him Hanoi’s rights record needed improvement.
“I think that Vietnam must do better in terms of human rights,” he told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“People are not able to freely express themselves … there is censorship. I think [the government is] trying to begin to make some changes … but they have a long way to go.”
Lowenthal said that he and several other members of congress were opposed to including Vietnam in the proposed U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to create a multilateral free trade agreement in the Asia-Pacific region, given Vietnam’s current rights record.
“I think the Vietnamese government realizes that if they want to have closer economic ties with the United States, they must change their position,” he said.
“If they keep putting people into prison … Congress will not support any kind of agreement with them. They have to stop doing what they’re doing.”
Lowenthal led an 11-member delegation to meet with the 87-year-old leader of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) Thich Quang Do on Monday at the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Ho Chi Minh City, where he has been under effective house arrest since 2003.
At the meeting, Do told the delegation—which also included republican Congressmen Matt Salmon and Tom Emmer—that the U.S. “has real leverage to help put Vietnam on the path of reform” ahead of the 19th session of the U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue in Hanoi on Thursday.
“As Vietnam seeks to play a greater role on the regional and international stage, it needs the support of the United States and the TPP to boost its slowing economy,” Do said, according to a press release by Paris-based Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR).
“The Communist leadership … policy of economic liberalization without political reforms is disastrous, resulting in alarming social inequalities and wealth disparity. Without democracy, pluralism and human rights, we can never build a just, safe and peaceful society for Vietnam,” he said.
“By maintaining human rights as a cornerstone of U.S. engagement, [Washington] can impress upon the Vietnamese leadership that they cannot enjoy full economic relationships whilst suppressing their citizens’ basic rights.”
The Buddhist patriarch also applauded a report issued by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) last week, recommending that Vietnam be designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” by the United States for egregious violations of religious freedom.
According to a statement by the U.S. State Department issued ahead of Thursday’s meeting, the U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue was expected to include topics such as legal reform, rule of law, freedom of expression and assembly, religious freedom, labor rights, and disability rights.
“The promotion of human rights remains a key tenet of U.S. foreign policy and is part of our ongoing dialogue within the U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership,” the statement said.
U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius and Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski are leading the U.S. delegation, while Ministry of Foreign Affairs Director General for International Organizations Vu Anh Quang is heading the delegation from Vietnam, it said.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of New York-based Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division warned in a statement in the lead up to the meeting that “no one should mistake the … talks as meaning that Vietnam has committed to take actual steps to improve its dire human rights record.”
“Vietnam is more than happy to engage in rights dialogues where the final result is too often an 'agreement to disagree' rather than meaningful rights reforms like releasing political prisoners or doing away with draconian penal code provisions that criminalize civil and political rights,” he said.
“The U.S. should be telling Vietnam that the only way that Hanoi can be considered a partner in the TPP trade talks is if it makes real reforms to end criminalization of freedom of speech, permits formation of independent unions and holding of peaceful public assemblies, allows real freedom of religion, and lets all its political prisoners go free.”
The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi on Wednesday invited representatives from Vietnam’s civil society to meet with a U.S. human rights delegation to discuss issues related to human rights and democracy and gauge their support for the TPP, sources told RFA.
The morning before the meeting, police detained some activists to prevent them from possibly attending the event, including Thao Teresa as she took her child to school in Hanoi and Nguyen Dan Que at his home in Ho Chi Minh City, they said.
Reported by Mac Lam for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.