July 25th, 2013
09:20 AM ET

Obama must press Vietnam over rights abuses

By Scott Flipse and Nguyen Dinh Thang, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Scott Flipse is deputy director for policy at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.  Nguyen Dinh Thang is executive director of Boat People SOS, a Vietnamese-American community organizing association.  The views expressed are their own.

Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang visits the White House on Thursday, and when he does, President Barack Obama should take the opportunity to deliver a clear message: If Vietnam wants expanded trade and security cooperation, then Hanoi will have to demonstrate concrete and substantial improvements in human rights. Prioritizing these rights may prompt some grumbling, but will be overwhelmingly welcomed by the Vietnamese people, the large majority of whom are pro-American and want more freedom.

There is a recent precedent for this approach. In Burma, the administration prioritized human rights improvements as a condition for improved relations. Indeed, given Burma’s recent openness to reform, Vietnam has now been left with the worst human rights record in the Association of Southeast Asian Nation region.

By setting clear human rights benchmarks for Vietnam in exchange for new trade and security benefits from the administration, the U.S. can achieve similar results in Vietnam. In fact, such an approach worked for Vietnam nearly a decade ago, particularly in the arena of freedom of religion.

In late 2004, the George W. Bush administration designated Vietnam as a "country of particular concern," a U.S. blacklist of countries with the worst religious freedom abuses. Vietnam, seeking U.S. support for its WTO membership, responded with steps to improve conditions for Vietnam's diverse religious communities.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration removed the designation – and with it, the threat of possible sanctions – prematurely in 2006. Hanoi quickly launched a brutal crackdown against religious leaders, journalists, authors, human rights champions, student activists, labor union organizers, and land rights advocates.  Since 2007, Hanoi has conducted four waves of arrests against dissidents, its worst crackdown since 1975.

While the Obama administration repeatedly states its disappointment with Vietnam's "backsliding" on human rights, Hanoi continually ignores such messages. And, although the administration says the right things publicly, its actions point to its real interests in trade expansion and security cooperation.

For example, in April a State Department delegation was in Hanoi for a one-day dialogue on human rights. It was attended by low-ranking Vietnamese government officials, with State Department officials denied meetings with prominent dissidents. In contrast, 10 days later a large U.S. delegation led by the acting U.S. Trade Representative spent three days in Vietnam to negotiate over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). That group met with the Vietnamese president, a deputy prime minister, several ministers and deputy ministers.

The message to Vietnam’s government is blindingly obvious: The U.S. cares more about trade than human rights. But such an approach has U.S. priorities backwards and undermines the leverage the U.S. has to bring about concrete human rights improvements.

Simply stated, Vietnam wants more from the United States than the U.S. wants from Vietnam. Vietnam wants access to the TPP and other beneficial trade preferences such as the General System of Preferences (GSP).  Vietnam also wants the United States to balance China's aggressive stance in the South China Sea and to protect Vietnam's interest in offshore islands. If Washington sends a crystal clear message that expanded relations depend on concrete human rights improvements, then Hanoi can be expected to respond accordingly.

In his meeting this week, President Obama should tell President Truong Tan Sang that Vietnam will get the trade preferences and security assurances it wants only when all prisoners of conscience are released, when internet censorship is ended, when suppression of independent labor and religious organizations are halted, and Vietnam demonstrates a move to a "rule-of-law" system in all areas, not just those advancing its economic interests.

As a goodwill gesture, Hanoi should be asked to release four of the most prominent prisoners of conscience immediately, including Cu Huy Ha Vu, a constitutional scholar serving a seven-year prison term for publicly challenging the government's violations of the Constitution; Nguyen Van Hai (also known as Dieu Cay), who is serving a 12-year sentence for launching the Club of Free Journalists; Ta Phong Tan, a former security official who started a blog to expose government corruption and who is serving a 10-year sentence for "conducting propaganda against the state;" and Le Quoc Quan, a human rights lawyer and former fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, who has been detained without trial since December 2012.

Conditioning the expansion of U.S.-Vietnam relations on human rights improvements will demonstrate to Vietnam's leaders that U.S. interests rest on the combined foundation of human rights, trade, and security cooperation.  It will produce concrete results that the administration can rightly claim as a major diplomatic success.  And it will be joyously welcomed by the Vietnamese people, who no doubt want greater prosperity, more freedoms, and protections of fundamental human rights.

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Topics: Asia • Human Rights

soundoff (36 Responses)
  1. Joseph McCarthy

    Here goes that clown Obama again, telling another country what to do, this time telling the Vietnamese to respect the "human rights" of it's people. Did we respect the human rights of the Vietnamese people while we were there? Of course not! This is quite ludicrous to sat the least! On the other hand, would he like it if Russia told him to stop NSA for spying on us Americans here at home? I doubt it!

    July 25, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Reply
  2. John Nguyen

    Imposing such conditions as a prerequisite to improved/upgraded U.S.-Vietnam relations is almost a guarantee that the U.S. and Vietnam do not improve their relations - and pushes Vietnam into China's arms. Why stop at human rights? Why not add a multi-party system, democracy, no corruption a prerequisites? The outcome would be to make Vietnam into an isolated country like North Korea or Cuba.
    So while in name of trying to help the Vietnamese people, these types of pre-conditions have the exact opposite effect.
    I am glad that there are sensible people in the U.S. government, such as President Obama, Sec. John Kerry, and others who do not share such radical views. I am sorry to say - but with an increasingly aggressive China about to swallow Vietnam, focusing exclusively on human rights is not helpful and a little silly. Please focus on the big picture.

    July 25, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Reply
  3. George patton

    Can either of these two bozos tell me just who the H are we Americans to criticize other countries for their "human" rights "abuses"? Like Joe said above, we never respected the rights of the Vietnamese people while we were tearing their country apart with our ungodly military machines any more than we're current respecting those who are on the receiving end of those cursed drone strikes in the Middle East and Central Asia. And what about NSA's right to spy on all of us here in America that was upheld yesterday in Congress? Enough said.

    July 25, 2013 at 12:31 pm | Reply
  4. John Nguyen

    An analogy - the Vietnam house is about to be burned down (with all the children inside) by the Chinese Fire, and the U.S. fireman can help put out the fire. Instead of putting out the fire first, the human rights activists argue: "let's address how you educate/discipline your children as pre-conditions before we put out the fire." While this discussion is going on, the house burns down with all the children inside. Such "pre-conditions" raise the question of whether their proponents really want to save the house - or they want the house to burn down? Their motive is confusing at times.

    July 25, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Reply
  5. Henry Do

    Well said, John Nguyen. Could not agree with you more. The two idiots who wrote this article could not care less if Vietnam becomes a province of China. I have no problem asking VN to respect more human rights. That is the right thing to do, just as we should ask China to give their people more human rights. But to put as a preconditions shows a complete ignorance of the history and the context of the current Chinese agression.

    I wonder if Nguyen Dinh Thang was not previously known as Le Chieu Thong?

    July 25, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Reply
    • Freedom

      Ho Chi Minh and his Commies are Le Chieu Thong who brought Chinese to Tay Nguyen, open Chinese village in Binh Duong donate border lands to China, Pham Van Dong sent letter to his Chinese brothers in Beijing an=bout Hoang Sa etc.. which one are Le Chieu Thong?
      Put Quyen, Khang etc.. into jail when they voiced out against the Chinese pirate at sea to rob Vietnamese fishermen.

      July 25, 2013 at 9:38 pm | Reply
      • Nguyên Lê

        something that should be reserved for men, the yellow flag rather

        September 2, 2013 at 11:32 am |
  6. Huy Tran

    It was very interesting that during their meeting today, Pres. Sang gave Pres. Obama a copy of the 1946 letter from Ho Chi Minh to Truman in which Ho Chi Minh appealed for U.S. assistance/intervention against the French's efforts to re-colonize Vietnam. President Sang's giving a copy of the Ho Chi Minh letter to President Obama is filled with symbolism...and also reflects a desperation on Vietnam's part.

    The situation with China has become so severe (like a giant tower falling on Vietnam's head). To reflect this urgency, President Sang wanted appeal to history and convey a message of Ho Chi Minh's urgent message to the U.S. in 1946. The message is: "The last time Vietnam asked for US help in 1946, the U.S. turned us down...and by default (i.e., no other options) we were forced to be under the influence/control of Red China/USSR. This eventually led to the destructive U.S-Vietnam War. Please keep this history in mind as we now ask for your help again in 2013. Help us if you don't want us to be again under China's control in the 21st Century..which could lead to a second U.S.-Vietnam War. I hope that this message of urgency was heard and received by the U.S. Government.

    Re: human rights - the lives/freedom/independence of 92 million people outweighs 120 individuals (who no doubt will be released in time through further and deepening U.S. engagement, not U.S. estrangement as the two authors appear to endorse).

    July 25, 2013 at 3:28 pm | Reply
    • Chung Dao

      I agree with you on the urgency of Vietnam's appeal. Hopefully, the US government will understand and have right action just in aspect of the current sea conflict. Please don't let China conquer Vietnam.

      July 25, 2013 at 6:31 pm | Reply
  7. Huy Tran

    http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/07/25/joint-statement-president-barack-obama-united-states-america-and-preside

    The U.S. and Vietnam have agreed to form a "U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership Agreement" to provide a framework for advancing the relationship. This is very positive for both sides – especially for the Vietnam and the Vietnamese-American community. This framework will provide an accelerated path for improved/enhanced relationship, obviously recognizing the urgency of the China threat. The announcement of this new partnership agreement suggests that Vietnam has announced loudly that it is choosing the U.S. as its source of stability/security.
    China must be fuming over this - but Vietnam has decided to be bold and brave - rather than taking the appeasement approach to "big brother China."
    This should give Vietnamese-Americans relief that Vietnam is not falling into China's arms. The Vietnamese-American community (as Vietnamese in Vietnam) should all actively work to promote/strengthen the U.S.-Vietnam relationship - and actively resist and object to efforts that have the effect of slowing down or diminishing this important relationship (that is vital to Vietnam's independence and long-term survival).

    I am sorry to say - but at times, being a one-trick pony by focusing only on human rights at the exclusion of all other issues is contrary to the more important issues between the two countries.

    July 25, 2013 at 8:13 pm | Reply
  8. Hoi Tan

    Well written. I agree with those goodwill gesture. If anyone living in that region want "greater prosperity, more freedoms, and protections of fundamental human rights" then they have to stand up and work for it. Earn your own freedom. One has to fight one's own battle. Burma had done so. It is dillusional, they think, they can enjoy honeymoon for another decade while operating on the free ride toward the overseas and keep maintaning hold the gun pulling on their peoples' head to get what they want and get away with it.

    This let me think about the meeting between the king of beggar and the governor in Three Penny Opera.

    July 26, 2013 at 1:49 am | Reply
    • Nguyên Lê

      http://petrotimes.vn/news/vn/phap-luat/ve-cai-goi-la-giai-dan-chu-nhan-quyen-a-chau-2011_8243-chan-tuong-ke-duoc-giai.html please read this

      September 2, 2013 at 11:35 am | Reply
  9. Bryan chey

    President Obama should have told the Viet con to free Cambodia and Loas.

    July 26, 2013 at 2:45 am | Reply
  10. tevis

    Having lived in Hanoi the last several years, and being married to a native Hanoian, I'd suggest that the better approach here is the one that the US is taking. At the threshold, it's still mildly irritating (and yes, I'm American) to hear this kind of moralizing from a country that still won't do much to clean up the Agent Orange and wanton destruction it inflicted on the Vietnamese. So we're on shaky ground. That said, the human rights concerns are real (although not unique to Vietnam, but endemic in all of Southeast Asia). The more integrated Vietnam gets with the world–and that means trade and otherwise normal relations–the more that the current government will lose its grasp of power and/or commit to reforms. Don't push Vietnam away!

    July 26, 2013 at 3:13 am | Reply
  11. j. von hettlingen

    Truong Tan Sang's visit marks an important step in Vietnam-US relations, especially when Vietnam is seeking to safeguard its interests in the South China Sea. Hanoi is looking to upgrade the relationship with Washington to a strategic partnership in order to boost confidence and co-operation.
    Obama did address issues like freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, but Sang said these issues hould not prevent closer links between the two countries. Realpolitik!

    July 26, 2013 at 7:02 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Morally speaking j. von hettlingen, we have absolutely no right to lecture the Vietnamese on human rights in light of our use of those ungodly drones to slaughter people like pigs in a pen in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. This hardly shows any respect for human rights. Moreover, did we respect the rights of the Vietnamese people back in the 1960's and 70's while we were tearing their country apart and bombing the daylights out of them? Of course not!

      July 26, 2013 at 10:39 am | Reply
      • Maxwell Cao

        Being a Vietnamese American, my parents lived through the war and were there and the US wasn't just bombing innocent Vietnamese. They were bombing places where the Viet Cong were, sure there were civilian casualties but that happens in any war. You don't know what is happening in Vietnam right now or you would understand. Imagine this, there's something you don't like about the government and you decide to write a little blog about it right? Well guess what there's two FBI guys at your door to take you away and put you away for at least 10 years. Well it's like that in Vietnam every single day, innocent people are being taken away against their will with no formal trial or anything. They get tortured and thrown into jail. Their families aren't safe either, they are monitored constantly and very move they make is recorded. This isn't the US telling Vietnam what to do but rather telling them " Hey if you want to trade with us you're going to play by our rules and by our rules we mean you gotta treat humans like humans". If Vietnam refuses than there's no trading. I'm not sure what Vietnam will do as I don't know if they are willing to give up their control on the citizens of Vietnam for trade with the US, but I am just saying you shouldn't judge or critic the US without not knowing the full story.

        July 29, 2013 at 11:28 am |
  12. TD

    So, if it is so critical for Hanoi to secure America's cooperation in trade and security-why don't they just release the political dissidents? Why is Hanoi insecure about people who peacefully dissent? Who does Hanoi fear more-the "close enemy" or the "far enemy?" I think we can all agree that the far enemy–China–is the real threat. But Hanoi doesn't seem to act that way-they are more afraid of activists (not Vietnamese-Americans, but their own citizens) who have the moral courage to ask the questions everyone is afraid to ask. Of course we want Vietnam to be prosperous and of course America is hypocritical. But the points articulated in this article are not political abstractions–they are necessary steps if Vietnam wants to involve into a modern nation. If Hanoi is more concerned about preservation of the Party over the prosperity of the Nation and People....then why should America help them?

    July 26, 2013 at 12:43 pm | Reply
    • Henry Do

      If you are so righteous, why not stand up to the Chinese and tell the US not to have any relations (trade, commerce, diplomatic) until the Chinese government releases all the political dissidents?

      The point is not that Hanoi should not realease unconditionally all political prisoners. They should, and immediately ! The point is: what is the best way to get them to do so. Is it turning them away from the US so they will become another N. Korea? or is it engaging them in a dialogue that will lead to democracy eventually taking root in VN (by throwing out these communists). By proposing to set preconditions, the authors are following the first approach. It is a good thing the US does not listen to these naive views.

      July 26, 2013 at 5:47 pm | Reply
    • Hoi Tan

      "Hanoi doesn't seem to act that way-they are more afraid of activists (not Vietnamese-Americans, but their own citizens) who have the moral courage to ask the questions everyone is afraid to ask."

      Because at this moment in time, SRV succeed sabotage the Vietnamese communities overseas. They are currently capitalize on the set of words such as "anti-Viet Communist" that help them organize to continue play out the psychological war and strength their influence to the American business communities. For the Vietnamese-American, there are going to be a time that necessary to do a house cleanning in order to get back a normal life.

      Human right is just for keep the dialogue. Diplomatic is more important. The end game is let them play out on their own theater.

      July 27, 2013 at 4:20 am | Reply
  13. HT

    The U.S. helps Vietnam because it is its interest to do so. The U.S. needs VN to be a strong foot soldier as part of a China containment strategy. All international actors act in their self-interests - i.e., there are no favors being handed out. If Vietnam no longer serves this purpose, then the U.S. will toss Vietnam out. So there shouldn't be an expectation of one country doing a favor for another.

    July 26, 2013 at 5:44 pm | Reply
  14. HT

    Re: Vietnam's evolution into a modern country, the key word is "evolution." I would also qualify it as "realistic evolution" or perhaps "peaceful evolution." Despite the official party line to the contrary, Vietnam recognizes that it has to change - and Vietnam's leadership probably want peaceful evolution rather than a violent process such as in the Arab world.

    I would argue that Vietnam is more likely to evolve into a modern nation that respects human rights - eventually with true democracy - if it is fully integrated with the world, including having full relations with the U.S. Through such regular exchanges, the U.S. values/ways of doing things will rub off on Vietnam. Vietnamese-Americans can help with this function.

    Countries (like individuals) are more likely to accept criticisms and change when the party dishing out the criticisms rolls up his sleeve and work with the other party. The other approach is to give stern lectures to the effect of "we won't play with you until you have changed." I doubt it if this approach has ever worked.

    In any event, I am glad to see the Obama/Sang visit and hope that there will be many more of high-level exchanges in the future. In fact, I hope the U.S. will go even further and "adopt" Vietnam as its key partner/protege in Southeast Asia..because this can only help the Vietnamese people. Peaceful changes will come quickly.

    July 26, 2013 at 6:02 pm | Reply
    • George patton

      Good posting, HT. Since 1975, Vietnam has been going in the right direction and evolving quite nicely like China is. In fact, if we would only quit trying to starve Cuba into submission, that country might evolve the same way. This way, Cuba could well set an example for the rest of Latin America.

      July 26, 2013 at 7:08 pm | Reply
  15. John Nguyen

    I do support improvements in human rights – but I see a different and perhaps more realistic and effective path than the one suggested by the article.

    Along the line of HT's "rolling up the sleeve" suggestion - and consistent with the two presidents' emphasis on the role of Vietnamese-Americans as bridges and contributing to the US-VN people-to-people relations, I would like to suggest that efforts regarding human rights be redirected (or be part) efforts to promote friendship between the two peoples. For example, Vietnamese-American groups and organizations (such as BPSOS) that in the past have focused on human rights issues could work to promote friendship/understanding/cooperation/cultural exchanges between the US and Vietnam, e.g., helping Vietnamese students study in the U.S., helping US companies do business in Vietnam, bringing Vietnamese artists to the US, etc. These are productive activities and will bring people together –further, they are consistent with U.S. foreign policy objectives, and will be well received by the U.S. government are more likely to be funded with grants rather than efforts to maintain a gap between the countries.
    Said differently, "Get with the program, Jack!"

    July 26, 2013 at 8:57 pm | Reply
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