Three Rights-Abusing Nations on Hillary Clinton’s Asia Itinerary

By Patrick Goodenough | October 29, 2010 | 5:15 AM EDT

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits U.S. troops at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam on Friday, Oct. 29, 2010 as she begins a two-week trip in Asia. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool)

( – Upholding democracy and human rights is “an essential element of everything we do in U.S. foreign policy,”  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a major speech Thursday kicking off a tour of Asia.

But at least three of the seven countries she will visit – communist-ruled China and Vietnam, and Cambodia, an autocratic monarchy – have poor human rights records, although in her speech in Honolulu she reserved the most direct criticism for a country not on her itinerary, Burma.

While China featured prominently in the speech, Clinton worded her comments on human rights in that country cautiously, saying, “We seek a far-reaching dialogue that advances the protection of the universal rights of all people.”

She also mentioned three Asian Nobel laureates – imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, the exiled Tibetan Dalai Lama, and Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest.

With regard to Vietnam – the host of an East Asia Summit she will attend on Saturday – Clinton made no direct reference to human rights abuses.

And human rights concerns in Cambodia did not come up in the speech either.

On Burma, by contrast, Clinton accused the military junta of inflicting “ongoing human rights abuses” and later in the speech said the U.S. was commit “to seek accountability for the human rights violations that have occurred in Burma by working to establish an international Commission of Inquiry through close consultations with our friends, allies, and other partners at the United Nations.”

Burma will soon hold a deeply flawed election, and one thing we have learned over the last few years is that democracy is more than elections,” she continued. “And we will make clear to Burma’s new leaders, old and new alike, that they must break from the policies of the past.”

From Hawaii, Clinton’s trip takes her via Guam to Vietnam, China, Cambodia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Australia, before flying home via American Samoa.

Differences over human rights have been a source of friction between the U.S. and China for many years. Beijing is particularly sensitive to criticism from the West, and its State Council has each year for the past decade responded to the annual State Department report on human rights around the world by issuing a retaliatory report of its own, focused solely on the U.S.

Some critics of China’s human rights record have perceived a softening in Washington’s stance under the Obama administration.

They were alarmed when Clinton, on her first visit to China as secretary of state early last year, said that differences over human rights could not be allowed to interfere with priorities like the global economic crisis and climate change.

President Obama’s decision not to meet with the Dalai Lama when he was in Washington to receive a human rights award last October added to those concerns. The two eventually met in February of this year. (Beijing, which has occupied Tibet since 1951, views the Buddhist leader as a dangerous separatist and works hard to isolate him diplomatically.)

After the Obama administration held a human rights dialogue with the Chinese in May, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor Michael Posner told reporters that the administration approached the dialogue as “an open discussion where you not only raise the other guy’s problems, but you raise your own.”

He went on to say that the U.S. side had brought up Arizona’s immigration-enforcement law “early and often” during the talks, citing it as an example of a “troubling trend” in the U.S. Arizona’s top lawmakers demanded an apology from Posner.

'Our new best friend in Asia

Clinton’s visit to Vietnam comes days after a court sentenced six Catholics to prison terms ranging from nine to 12 months for refusing to sell and vacate land, including a graveyard, in their rural village, Con Dau.

They were among some 60 people arrested last May while taking part in a funeral the government had not permitted.

The U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a statutory body that advises the executive and legislative branches, this week urged Clinton to raise the issue with her Vietnamese hosts and seek the villagers’ unconditional release.

“It is well-documented that religious communities in Vietnam – Buddhist, Protestant, Hao Hao, and Catholic – all face restrictions, intimidations, and even violence because of their religious activities or religious freedom activism,” said USCIRF chairman, Leonard Leo.

Vietnam is supposed to be our new best friend in Asia, but the United States cannot continue to pursue a relationship that advances Vietnam’s economic and security interests without seeing progress on human rights and the rule of law.”

The USCIRF has been urging the U.S. government to return Vietnam to a list of “countries of particular concern,” a designation that allows the U.S. to take measures, including sanctions, against governments that engage in or tolerate serious religious freedom abuses.

Neither the Bush administration, which removed Hanoi from the list in 2006, nor the current one has complied with the recommendation.

Other recent cases in Vietnam that have drawn criticism from U.S. lawmakers and human rights groups include a decision last month to put a dissident professor on trial for “activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration,” and the case of a writer and activist who was detained, assaulted while police looked on, and then herself found guilty of assault and sentenced in February to three-and-a-half years’ imprisonment.

Cambodia is another country on Clinton’s itinerary where rights abuses have drawn attention.

“Controlled judiciary, muzzled media, jailed political opponents, brutal military and police – Cambodia has it all,” Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said in a statement this week ahead of Clinton’s trip.

“The U.S. can either stand with embattled activists pressing for human rights and accountability or close its eyes as authoritarian rule in Cambodia is institutionalized for years to come,” he said.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen instructed visiting U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday to shut down the U.N.’s human rights office in Cambodia and sack the official who heads it, alleging that the office was a mouthpiece for the political opposition.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow