The biggest challenge to President Barack Obama’s attempt to improve ties while visiting Vietnam this week is the communist nation’s dismal record on human rights.
Some residents can't practice their religion. Other activists aren’t allowed to run for political office. And an increasing number of bloggers face retribution for calling for more freedom and transparency. All told, human rights group say, nearly 100 dissidents are behind bars in Vietnam.
The authoritarian-ruled county has what a group of U.S. senators call one of the most repressive regimes in the world, coming just behind other nearby communist countries including China and North Korea.
Vietnam very much remains a closed country. All political power lies firmly with the ruling Communist Party, which carefully monitors public and private lives. There is no independent media, and civil society groups cannot legally register themselves unless they submit to the Communist Party’s control Rafendi Djamin, director of Amnesty International’s South East Asia and Pacific Regional office
That has forced Obama into a delicate balancing act as he tries to boost economic and military ties to the former enemy while not appearing to accept Vietnam’s actions on human rights.
“Obama should stand next to Vietnam’s leaders in public and call on them to respect the right to freely choose government representatives, stand for office, and peacefully advocate for democracy,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “If this trip is partially about legacy-building, as some suggest, there can be no more meaningful legacy than helping the people of Vietnam achieve fundamental reforms.”
He got his first chance Monday when he met with Vietnam's president, Tran Dai Quang.
At a news conference Monday, Obama acknowledged that Vietnam has only made “modest progress” on human rights.
“We will continue to speak out on behalf of human rights that we believe are universal, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion and freedom of assembly and that includes the right of citizens, through civil society, to organize and help improve their communities and their country,” he said. “I believe that nations are stronger and more prosperous when these universal rights are upheld.”
Moments later, Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang did not mention the accusations, but said “the consistent position and viewpoint of the Vietnamese state and government is to protect and promote human rights.”
Obama will meet with members of Vietnamese civil society Tuesday, when he is sure to speak about human rights, said Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.
President Barack Obama will travel to Vietnam and Japan May 21-28 on his 10th trip to Asia. His first visit to Vietnam includes stops in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. He will participate in his final G-7 Summit in Ise-Shima, Japan, before becoming the first U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, the site of the world’s first atomic bombing.
Before Obama left Washington, Vietnam released prominent Catholic dissident, Rev. Nguyen Van Ly, three months before an eight-year prison sentence was to end, a symbolic move on the eve of the presidential trip.
Still, Obama faces pressure from human rights groups and lawmakers of both parties on Capitol Hill to push Vietnam to release all 100 prisoners, including Montagnard Christians, a persecuted ethnic minority, bloggers and dissidents.
That includes prominent Vietnamese human rights lawyer, Nguyen Van Dai, who has been detained for five months without being able to see his lawyers and family. His wife, Vu Minh Khanh, told Congress last week that Dai was beaten and now faces years in prison for allegedly violating a law that makes conducting propaganda against the state a crime. She called on Obama to push for his freedom on his trip.
In a letter Friday calling Vietnam one of the most repressive regimes in the world, five Republican senators including Marco Rubio of Florida and John Cornyn of Texas urged Obama to press its leaders to respect freedom of religion and expression.
Democrats, including Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., a member of the Congressional Caucus on Vietnam whose district includes many Vietnamese Americans, agree.
Some urged Obama not to lift a four-decade ban on weapons, saying that would eliminate leverage the U.S. has used to push Vietnam to change its human rights practices. But Obama announced he was eliminating the embargo Monday.
Sanchez offered an amendment to a defense bill last week that would encourage the White House to make any arms sales to Vietnam contingent on human rights progress.
“If the United States lifts the arms embargo on Vietnam, we will be giving a free pass to a government that continually harasses, detains and imprisons its citizens who are fighting for their basic civil rights and freedoms,” she said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former prisoner of war, said in an interview that he hopes Obama will raise the issues on his trip, but he thinks that there are other ways to push the country to act on human rights, including imposing sanctions and curtailing U.S. investment in the country. “There’s a number of ways we could put additional pressure on the Vietnamese,” he said.
The prospects appear mixed.
A 2015 report by the State Department said the country continued to enforce “severe government restrictions of citizens’ political rights, particularly their right to change their government through free and fair elections.”
Last month, Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in Hanoi that there had been “some progress” in Vietnam’s human rights record, including ratifying the United Nations Convention Against Torture in 2013 and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2014.
More recently, though, activists said police over the last two weekends beat protesters demanding the government answer questions about an environmental disaster that caused mass fish deaths.
We are concerned about the increasing levels of violence perpetrated against Vietnamese protesters expressing their anger over the mysterious mass deaths of fish along the country’s central coast. We call on the government of Vietnam to respect the right to freedom of assembly in line with its international human rights obligations office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights
Obama’s visit comes just after a controversial election for the 500-seat National Assembly which excluded independent candidates from appearing on the ballot.
“Vietnam's human rights record remains a major concern for the United States,” said Ronak D. Desai, a fellow at New America and an affiliate at the Belfer Center's India and South Asia Program at Harvard University. “Although progress has been made over the past several years, the Obama Administration recognizes there is still work left to be done.”
This version adds new material from Obama meetings and news conference Monday