(CNSNews.com) - A vote to normalize trade relations with Vietnam -- one of the final acts of the outgoing Congress -- has been hailed by Hanoi's communist government and U.S. business leaders, but Vietnamese pro-democracy activists are dismayed.
Three decades after the end of the Vietnam War, the Senate voted Saturday to end a Cold-War era law that links permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) to Vietnam's handling of human rights and immigration issues.
The measure formed part of a larger legislative package that also expanded oil and gas drilling rights in the Gulf of Mexico. It passed with bipartisan support, by a 79-9 vote, a day after the House passed a similar bill.
Also known as most-favored nation status, PNTR will provide the Southeast Asian nation with the same customs and tariff treatment the U.S. offers other PNTR countries, in line with World Trade Organization rules. Hanoi joins the WTO next month.
President Bush, who visited Vietnam for an Asia-Pacific summit last month, praised lawmakers for the move, saying in a statement: "Vietnam is demonstrating its strong commitment to continuing economic reforms, which will support political reform and respect for human rights."
U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab said passage of PNTR "demonstrates to our trading partners in East Asia, the United States' commitment to strengthen and deepen our relationships in that region."
Nonetheless, political repression and human rights violations by the Vietnamese government, particularly abuses or religious freedom, remain issues of concern for advocacy groups.
During the House debate Friday, several members were quoted as having raised the human rights situation. Supporters argued, however, that lifting the trade restrictions would help push Hanoi towards further economic and political reforms, and increase pressure on the regime to meet international standards.
The California-based Vietnam Reform Party, Viet Tan, was among those unhappy with the passage of the legislation.
Party spokeswoman Chi Dang told Cybercast News Service in a statement Monday that it regretted the move at a time "conditions of human rights in Vietnam are getting worse, not better."
The party shared the concerns of many human rights activists in Vietnam, international rights groups, and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), she said.
Viet Tan was also dismayed about the administration's recent decision - on the eve of Bush's visit to Hanoi - to remove Vietnam from a list of "countries of particular concern" (CPCs) for egregious religious freedom abuses.
The State Department at the time cited "significant improvement towards advancing religious freedom," although just a week earlier the USCIRF, a panel established under a 1998 law to advise the executive and legislative branches, had urged Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to keep Vietnam on the CPC list.
Dang disputed the argument that easing trade restrictions with Vietnam would boost internal reforms.
"Trade by itself does not necessarily improve the lives of people under rogue regimes. Only when trade is consciously used to promote human rights could positive changes take place," she argued.
"Today, Vietnam's economy is heavily controlled by the government. If there are economic gains, these gains will be reaped largely by those who are politically connected."
Viet Tan, which claims membership inside Vietnam and around the world, says its aim is "to establish democracy and reform the country through peaceful means."
In an editorial, Vietnam's Nhan Dan daily - the central organ of the Communist Party - called the congressional vote "a vivid manifestation of the achievements of Vietnam's foreign policy of openness, multilateralization and diversification and a persuasive confirmation of the success of the renewal process, initiated by the Communist Party of Vietnam, over the past 20 years."
Following the passage, the paper said, it believed "the relations between the two countries will be further strengthened in the trend of constructive partnership, friendship and multifaceted co-operation on the basis of equality, mutual respect and benefit."
Business groups backing the move included the U.S.-Vietnam WTO Coalition and the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council.
Also "strongly" supporting the legislation was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which pointed out last Thursday that Vietnam would join the WTO with or without PNTR approval, but without the approval, "the U.S. will not enjoy the sharp tariff cuts and other benefits that Vietnam will grant to other WTO members."
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