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Kerry Says Repressive Vietnam 'Embracing' Freedom

Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a speech at Ho Chi Minh University of Technology and Education in Vietnam on Jan. 13, 2017. (State Department photo)

A day after President Obama made it harder for Cubans fleeing the communist regime to find refuge in the United States, Secretary of State John Kerry was in another communist regime’s capital — lauding the growing economic relationship with Vietnam while giving the country credit for moving forward on human rights issues.

That’s despite an Amnesty International report published this summer detailing Vietnam’s crackdown on dissidents, democracy activists, bloggers and others, ranging from official harassment to secretive imprisonment and torture.

“Severe restrictions on freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly” persist, the human rights organization notes in their country overview, while media the judiciary, political bodies and religious institutions are under strict state control.

Amnesty’s summer report details “a pattern of torture and ill-treatment in cases of prisoners of conscience which includes enforced disappearances; prolonged periods of incommunicado detention and solitary confinement; the infliction of severe physical pain and suffering; the denial of medical treatment; and punitive transfers that take prisoners of conscience from prison to prison throughout the country, cutting them off from their families and support networks.”

“The objective of these practices is straightforward – to compel prisoners of conscience to ‘admit’ to the accusations against them and to punish them for their activism, both in the outside world and in the prisons themselves,” said Amnesty regional researcher John Coughlan. “Interviewees told Amnesty International how they were beaten, electrocuted and, in one case, burnt by police and prison staff, and how they spent months on end in solitary confinement, in total darkness and complete silence.”

In a speech at Ho Chi Minh University of Technology and Education today — his second-to-last speech as secretary of State — Kerry told the Vietnamese “there is no question” that as the United States and Vietnam draw closer in what he characterized as an enduring partnership “we do have some differences.”

“You know that and I know that. The good news is that we’ve learned how to talk about them frankly, regularly, and productively,” he said. “And I have made clear, President Obama has made clear we support the right of individuals to speak their mind and to worship and to travel and to acquire and share knowledge and information, and to take part in the decisions that affect their lives. We think that’s an inalienable right, and we speak about it.”

“Every country and culture is unique, but the idea of freedom is actually universally recognized, and it is rooted in the fundamental human need to be afforded dignity and to be treated with respect. I think that need actually can be seen here in Vietnam today in the widespread use of social media, the popular movement towards greater support for worker rights, the broadening of civil society, the demand for religious liberty, and the steps that your government just took recently through your national assembly to pass a law regarding belief and religion,” Kerry continued. “So you’re moving, you’re embracing this. There is much more that needs to be done, yes. I hope your society will continue to move in that direction.”

The secretary said the “theme of renewal lies at the heart” of the U.S.-Vietnam relationship.

“Historically, the United States has been known as the most optimistic and forward-looking nation on earth. Yet today, surveys show that no nation is more hopeful or confident about the future than Vietnam,” Kerry said. “…I think one of the reasons that we’ve gotten along is that we don’t like being told, either of us, that certain things cannot be done, or that some goals are impossible.”