During a 10-minute address at a working lunch at the State Department, Kerry spoke warmly of the deepening relationship between the former foes but mentioned human rights just once, without elaboration.
“As we look ahead to the future of U.S.-Vietnam relations, we should remember that normalization could not have occurred without honest conversation, without candor between Washington and Hanoi, even on sensitive issues such as human rights,” he said. “And I am committed to building on this kind of frank and cooperative partnership that is essential to both of our countries.”
In his comments Sang, by contrast, did talk about human rights – defensively.
“Vietnam has been making sustained efforts to protect and promote human rights so that the people can benefit from the finest results of the reform process which is going on,” he said. “We’ve also made every effort to ensure the right of freedom of religion and belief as well as to maintain the diverse traditions of cultural values of the people.”
Sang alluded to Hanoi’s customary assertion that the West does not understand Vietnam’s particular environment. He referred in the context of human rights to the “distinct cultural and historical circumstances” in the two countries, and his expectation that discussions on religious-related issues would help Americans to have a “better understanding about the real situation in Vietnam.”
Sang, who is scheduled to meet President Obama at the White House on Thursday, is only the second Vietnamese president to visit the U.S. since the countries normalized relations in 1995.
Calls for the administration to spotlight human rights during his visit have come from lawmakers of both parties, human rights groups, labor organizations, media freedom watchdogs and religious freedom advocates.
Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran who became an antiwar activist, later played a key role in promoting a thaw in relations with Hanoi. He has a history of opposing measures linking aid to Vietnam to its human rights record – on one occasion using his position as chairman of a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee to block legislation that had passed the House of Representatives by a 410-1 vote.
Much of Kerry’s speech looked back, and he commended Hanoi’s cooperation in efforts to track Americans missing in action from the Vietnam War.
“They helped us to search for a few thousand of our sons even as a larger number of theirs were missing. They voluntarily dug up their own rice paddies in order to help us try to answer questions,” he recalled.
“They let us into their homes; they let us into their history houses. They let us into their prisons, unannounced on occasion, to interview prisoners. And they actually tolerated helicopters flying in the hamlets, as they once did in a different fashion, in order to inquire of citizens, to answer the questions that had not been answered for so many years.”
Kerry concluded his remarks by noting parallels in his own resume and that of his Vietnamese guest: Kerry joined the U.S. Navy in 1966, the same year Sang joined the Communist Party of Vietnam; in 1969 Kerry was “in the Mekong Delta at war,” while Sang “became a guerrilla leader” south of Saigon; in 1984 Kerry was elected to the U.S. Senate, while Sang “took on major responsibilities in Vietnam, ultimately becoming the mayor of Ho Chi Minh City [formerly Saigon] and so forth.”
“Now here the president is as the president of his country, and I’m privileged to serve President Obama in this capacity. So we have an opportunity to build on our past on this journey …”
Invited to comment on Kerry’s speech Duy Hoang, a U.S.-based spokesman for the pro-democracy group Viet Tan – which is banned in Vietnam – said Wednesday night the focus should be on Vietnam’s current situation, not past decades.
“The diplomatic relationship with Vietnam is now a fact. Rather than dwelling on what happened 20 or even 40 years ago, U.S. policy makers should focus on what’s going on in Vietnam today and what it takes to build deeper bilateral ties,” he said.
Hoang noted that Sang had never been elected to office by the Vietnamese people, but conceded that “in the short term it may be necessary for Washington to deal with autocrats.”
“To advance long-term U.S.-Vietnam interests, President Obama should heed the words from his second inaugural address: ‘our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom,’” he said.
Dissidents targeted for ‘propaganda, subversion, abusing democratic freedoms’
In a letter to Obama, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) urged him “to make human rights a top priority” during Sang’s visit.
Reporters Without Borders noted that Vietnam is second only to China in the number of bloggers and cyber-dissidents incarcerated – currently 35.
“Serving long sentences of up to 13 years in prison on trumped-up charges, they are the victims of his government’s determined persecution of dissident voices,” it said.
One blogger, known as Dieu Cay, has been imprisoned since 2008 and was sentenced last December to 12 years’ imprisonment on a charge of anti-government propaganda.
“Under Vietnam’s harsh penal code, authorities routinely arrest dissidents for crimes such as ‘conducting propaganda,’ ‘subversion of the people’s administration,’ ‘disrupting the unity of the state,’ or ‘abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State or [its] citizens,’” said Human Rights Watch.
The U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) asked Obama to raise concerns with Sang about the “very poor” religious freedom conditions in Vietnam.
In its most recent annual report, the USCIRF found that Hanoi severely restricts independent religious activity by Protestant Christians, Buddhists and others, and tries to stop the growth of ethnic minority Protestantism and Catholicism via discrimination, violence and forced renunciation of faith.
The USCIRF continues to recommend – unsuccessfully – that the State Department designate Vietnam as a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom violations.
The Teamsters union called on Obama to suspend free trade talks with Vietnam – taking place as part of the proposed 11-member Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – saying the president “must hold Vietnam accountable for its record on worker and human rights before America rewards the country with greater trading privileges.”