President Obama has decided to roll-back a longtime embargo and sell arms to Vietnam — but senators argue that should be contingent on the communist country showing progress in human rights.
Human Rights Watch says Vietnam’s human rights record “remains weak in all key areas.”
“The government suppresses virtually all forms of political dissent, using a broad array of repressive measures. Freedom of expression, association and public assembly are tightly controlled. Religious activists are harassed, intimidated and imprisoned. State-run drug rehabilitation centers exploit detainees as forced laborers making goods for local markets and export. The criminal justice system lacks independence and operates under the direction of the government and party.”
Reporters Without Borders says an “increasingly authoritarian” Vietnam is beating bloggers and sending them to prison. Dissidents are arrested on charges such as “abusing democratic freedoms.”
John Sifton, advocacy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch, notes that the Obama administration “defends the policy change by claiming that maritime equipment cannot be used to stifle dissent.”
“This argument misses the point. Of course, Hanoi won’t fire U.S.-made torpedoes at protesting crowds,” Sifton said. “…It sends a signal to Vietnam’s ruling party that they can choose to reform or not, and be treated the same either way. That is not the kind of message Hanoi needs to hear.”
Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), John Boozman (R-Ark.) and David Vitter (R-La.) sent Obama a letter Thursday asking the president “to reconsider it or to delay the delivery of any services and equipment until the Government of Vietnam has substantially improved its human rights record.”
“We support efforts by the United States to help our partners and allies address concerns about China’s aggressive territorial claims in the Asia Pacific maritime domains. However, we believe that such security cooperation, especially with governments like Vietnam’s with a stubbornly poor human rights record, should be predicated upon progress towards respect of basic individual freedoms,” they wrote.
As the administration made new efforts to improve relations with Vietnam between 2011 and 2013, the senators noted, “the number of Vietnamese citizens arrested or convicted for peaceful speech or political activity increased.”
“There are more prisoners in detention today than at any time in recent history, and the number of prisoners released this year is outnumbered by the number of new detainees. Most releases in 2014 were conditional, and most of the prisoners were terminally ill or in poor health. Meanwhile, over 150 other Vietnamese convicted for free speech acts in recent years remain in prison, including high profile cases, like Le Quoc Quan, Nguyen Van Dai, Le Cong Dinh, and Father Ly.”
Father Nguyen Van Ly is a Catholic priest who has been speaking out for religious freedom and free speech in Vietnam since the 1970s. In 2006 he began publishing an underground newspaper called Free Speech. He has been imprisoned on and off for many years and has suffered strokes behind bars.
Father Ly has encouraged the U.S. government to reject trade agreements to protest deplorable human rights in Vietnam. At his 2007 trial, Vietnamese officials were photographed clamping a hand over the priest’s mouth when he shouted, “Down with the Communist Party of Vietnam!”
The senators wrote that Vietnam continues to demand state registration of churches, resulting in a country “in which there is little freedom of religion.”
“The U.S. has an interest in helping Vietnam improve its maritime defense capabilities, but such efforts will only be sustainable if accompanied by a verifiable commitment from the Vietnamese authorities to substantially improve their human rights record,” the lawmakers told Obama. “Such commitment could include the unconditional release of all independent journalists, bloggers, and democracy and labor activists; as well as the repeal of laws criminalizing peaceful dissent, such as articles 79, 87, 88, 89, 91, and 258. Another positive signal by Vietnam would be to return estates and properties confiscated from churches and religious communities, and a verifiable end to the use of tax laws to prosecute the government’s critics.”
“We urge you to reconsider your decision and to ensure that easing the arms embargo is tied to specific progress on human rights and political reform in Vietnam.”