Fire U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam for ‘Sidelining’ Human Rights, Lawmaker Says

By Patrick Goodenough | July 10, 2012 | 4:28 AM EDT

A screenshot from a video clip shows the U.S. Embassy-hosted Fourth of July event in Hanoi last Wednesday. Ambassador David Shear and an unidentified woman are on the platform. (Image: You Tube)

( – A U.S. lawmaker called Monday for the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam to be fired, one day before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Hanoi to discuss, in the words of an administration official, “our bilateral relationship, areas that we can strengthen our political and economic ties.”

In a letter to President Obama and Clinton, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) said Ambassador David Shear should be removed from his post because he had failed to speak up for human rights in the communist-ruled state.

In particular, Wolf accused Shear of mishandling a Fourth of July event hosted by the U.S. Embassy by failing to honor his pledge to invite human rights and democracy activists.

The call to fire the ambassador is the latest reflection of unease on Capitol Hill and elsewhere about the priority being given to human rights as the U.S. relationship with Hanoi deepens.

Clinton was due to arrive in Vietnam on Tuesday for a visit focusing on bilateral ties as well as territorial disputes in the South China Sea. On her third visit to the country as secretary of state, she was being accompanied by a delegation of U.S. investors, looking to expand trade.

Relations between the two former foes have improved significantly over the past six or so years, a development that has been largely welcomed, but also prompts concern among human rights and religious freedom advocates.

Wolf, co-chairman of the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the House of Representatives, recounted his dealings with Shear with regard to the embassy’s Independence Day event last week.

When he discussed the event with Shear by phone earlier, he wrote, “I stressed that he should fling open the doors of the embassy and invite Buddhist monks and nuns, Catholic priests and Protestant pastors, Internet bloggers and democracy activists.

“Such was the custom during the Reagan Administration, especially in the Soviet Union. This practice sent a strong message that America stood with those who stand for basic human rights. In many cases it afforded these individuals protection from future harassment and even imprisonment.”

Wolf said Shear had undertaken to do this, but Wolf had learned last week “that many of the most prominent democracy and human rights activists in Vietnam were not invited to the event.”

“I called him directly this morning to find out if the embassy had invited the dissidents as had been agreed upon. His response was appalling. He said that he had invited a few civil society activists but then said that he needed to maintain a ‘balance.’”

Wolf said when he asked for a list of those invited, Shear had first refused, then said he would address the matter through the State Department. When pressed on when the list would be available, he had replied, “in a few weeks.”

Wolf accused the ambassador of going back on his word, misleading him about his intentions, and then, when asked for the invitee list, being “uncooperative at best and obstructionist at worst.”

The Fourth of July event – held not at the mission but at a lakeside hotel in central Hanoi – does not feature on the embassy’s official website, receiving no mention under the “embassy highlights,” “press releases” or “speeches, statements and remarks” sections.

A short video clip found on YouTube shows the singing of the Vietnamese and U.S. national anthems, and a color guard ceremony.

Queries sent to the embassy brought no response by press time.

Human rights ‘put on the back-burner’

In his letter to the president, Wolf also voiced disappointment in Shear’s handling of the case of Vietnamese-American activist Nguyen Quoc Quan, detained in Vietnam since being arrested in Ho Chi Minh City last April.

Quan, a California-based mathematics researcher and rights activist, has been imprisoned in Vietnam before for his pro-democracy advocacy on behalf of Viet Tan, an unauthorized group which Vietnam considers a terrorist organization.

Wolf said he was dismayed to learn from Quan’s wife, Mai Huong Ngo, during a Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission hearing last May, that no-one from the State Department had been in touch with her since her husband’s detention.

“Only at my urging did Ambassador Shear initiate contact with Mrs. Ngo to update her on her husband’s situation,” he wrote.

Wolf broadened his criticism beyond the ambassador.

“Sadly, his sidelining of serious human rights issues in Vietnam is symptomatic of this administration’s overall approach to human rights and religious freedom,” he charged. “Time and again these issues are put on the back burner – to the detriment of freedom-loving people the world over.”

Shear, who joined the foreign service in 1982, was sworn in as ambassador to Vietnam last August. According to his official bio he has served in Japan, China and Malaysia, and has held various Asia-related posts in Washington, including that of deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs in 2009-2011.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow