(CNSNews.com) – As the Obama administration pursues its “Pacific century” vision, some critics worry that one country with which it seeks to develop a new partnership is continuing to get away with human rights abuses, despite some modest signs of improvement.
Vietnam’s communist government over the summer and fall arrested at least 15 religious activists – members of the Catholic and Presbyterian churches – charging most under a controversial “subversion” article of the country’s penal code that carries a range of punishments up to the death penalty.
Ahead of Human Rights Day later this week, several members of Congress plan to introduce a resolution condemning what they call a “continued and worsening crackdown” against Vietnamese bloggers and democracy activists. They are urging Hanoi to repeal two penal code articles in particular.
Article 79, “Carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration,” provides for jail terms ranging from 12-20 years, life imprisonment or capital punishment for “organizers, instigators and active participants” and 5-15 years’ imprisonment for “accomplices.” Legal analysts say it makes no distinction between acts of terrorism and the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression.
Article 88, “Conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” provides for 3-12 years’ imprisonment for those convicted of activities including “spreading fabricated news in order to foment confusion among people” and “defaming the people’s administration.”
U.S. political, economic and military relations with Vietnam have improved significantly over the years since President Clinton in 2000 became the first president to visit the country since the Vietnam War.
Despite being a one-party state with a human rights record widely viewed as poor, Vietnam has benefited greatly from the developing ties. The U.S. in 2006 granted Hanoi permanent normal trade relations, paving the way for its accession to the World Trade Organization the following year.
The State Department in 2006 also removed Hanoi from a list of “countries of particular concern” for egregious abuses of freedom of religion, citing improvements. (Religious freedom advocacy groups opposed the move, pointing to ongoing abuses against Buddhists, Catholics and evangelicals.)
The deepening of bilateral relations has accelerated under the Obama administration, which is heavily promoting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a pact in the making that President Obama last month described as “our most ambitious trade agreement yet.”
Vietnam is one of the TPP’s nine current negotiating partners. All the others are democracies, except for Brunei, an Islamic sultanate.
The U.S. last month hosted the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Honolulu. In a speech on the summit sidelines, Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang said the two countries “want to take the relationship to the next level and move forward on this strategic partnership.”
The State Department acknowledges that Vietnam has been backsliding on human rights. Its latest annual human rights report says that the regime has “increased measures to limit citizens’ privacy rights and freedom of the press, speech, assembly, movement, and association.”
Critics of the Hanoi regime have long contended that the U.S. could use its leverage more effectively to push for improvements.
Last September 14 members of Congress from both parties wrote a letter to the new U.S. ambassador in Hanoi, David Shear, pressing for human rights to be an integral part of the bilateral relationship.
“Your appointment comes at a pivotal time as Vietnam pursues economic gains through its bilateral relations with the U.S. but continues to fail on what the United States regards as a priority: respect for the fundamental human rights of its citizens,” they wrote.
Beyond its borders, Vietnam’s performance in international forums has also not reflected its greatly improved relations with the West. At the U.N. it routinely votes with other non-democratic member states on issues of importance to the U.S.
Last year, on 13 key votes identified by the State Department as “issues which directly affected United States interests and on which the United States lobbied extensively,” Vietnam’s voting coincided with that of the U.S. only 18.2 percent of the time – less often than such countries as Libya, Zimbabwe and Burma, although more often than Iran and Cuba.
In an address on “America’s Pacific century,” delivered in Honolulu the same day as Sang’s speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did make a reference to Vietnam’s human rights situation.
“As we engage more deeply with nations with whom we disagree on issues like democracy and human rights, we will persist in urging them to reform,” she said. “For example, we have made it clear to Vietnam that if we are to develop a strategic partnership, as both nations desire, Vietnam must do more to respect and protect its citizens’ rights.”
On the eve of the APEC meetings, the State Department held the 16th round of annual human rights talks with Vietnamese officials in Washington DC
The State Department did not release much information from the two-day dialogue, which State Department spokesman Mark Toner said “certainly touched on religious freedom” and involved “very frank, candid exchanges.”
Toner’s Vietnamese counterpart, Luong Thanh Nghi, told a briefing in Hanoi later that the talks had included “frank discussions to clarify the truth on incorrect information that had not reflected the real situation in Vietnam,” according to state media.
Nonetheless, two positive signs have been reported in recent days.
An appeals court late last month reduced by half a three year sentence for subversion handed down to a Vietnamese-French blogger in 2010. Pham Minh Hoang will still have to serve three years of house arrest after his release from prison next month.
Le Cong Dinh, a human rights lawyer who called for political reforms and was sentenced last year to five years’ imprisonment under article 79, is reportedly to be released soon, his sister told Radio Free Asia last week.
“We welcome Secretary Clinton's attention to human rights in Vietnam and would like to see human rights further integrated into the bilateral relationship,” Duy Hoang, a U.S.-based spokesman for the banned pro-democracy group, Viet Tan (Vietnam Reform Party) told CNSNews.com on Monday.
“The United States should pursue deeper engagement with the Vietnamese people, especially civil society groups. Ultimately, only a free Vietnam can be a responsible economic and security partner in the region.”
Hoang said the government labels public criticism “anti-state propaganda,” and what it calls subversion “is really just Vietnamese citizens exercising their freedom of association and wanting to help shape the future of their own country.”