By Bridget Johnson - 11/28/10 10:00 PM EST
Capitol Hill's first ethnic Vietnamese lawmaker is spending his final weeks in the House pushing for sanctions against human-rights violators in his home country.
Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.) introduced two bills on Nov. 18. The Vietnam Democracy Promotion Act of 2010 provides aid money to promote freedom in the communist nation as well as education and refugee resettlement programs. It also imposes conditions on aid to Hanoi and requires annual progress reports. Cao's other bill, the Vietnam Human Rights Sanctions Act, would impose financial sanctions on, and deny visas to, Vietnamese officials guilty of human-rights abuses.
A companion bill was simultaneously introduced in the Senate by Republican Sens. Sam Brownback (Kan.), John Cornyn (Texas) and Richard Burr (N.C.).
"Vietnam’s oppression of its citizens, particularly over the last year, demonstrates the need for more targeted U.S. action," the co-sponsors said in a statement. "The Vietnamese government must reverse course on its human rights record in order to strengthen U.S.-Vietnam relations."
Cao told The Hill that he has no illusions that his effort will be on the packed lame-duck agenda, saying, "Obviously there is always hope, but it's going to be extremely difficult."
Still, the congressman, who was defeated earlier this month by Democrat Cedric Richmond in his bid for reelection, vowed to "continue to work through other members" to pass the bill, citing Wolf, Smith and Royce as lawmakers "who have been very vocal advocates for the Vietnam human rights issues" and would likely press the legislation in the next Congress.
Cao's sanctions bill is modeled after the McCain-Lieberman Iran sanctions legislation, he said, but this is the first time such a bill has targeted Vietnam.
"The transition of the Government of Vietnam toward greater economic activity and trade has not been matched by greater political freedom and substantial improvements in basic human rights for the citizens of Vietnam, including freedom of religion, expression, association, and assembly," the bill states, citing numerous dissidents mistreated by the government for promoting democracy. "The Government of Vietnam continues to detain, imprison, place under house arrest, convict, and otherwise restrict individuals for the peaceful expression of dissenting political or religious views, including democracy and human rights activists, independent trade union leaders, non-state-sanctioned publishers, journalists, bloggers, members of ethnic minorities, and unsanctioned religious groups."
Cao cites the case of 59 Catholics arrested this spring for trying to bury a woman in the cemetery of a parish that the government had decided to take over. One of the parishioners, Nam Nguyen, died from beatings in custody. Cao, Wolf and Smith all wrote letters to Vietnamese leaders seeking the Catholics' release, but six were convicted late last month — without legal representation — on charges of disturbing social order.
In a visit to Hanoi last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said human-rights concerns are "an issue of great importance to the United States" and that specific concerns had been raised in meetings with officials "regarding severe sentences for political activists, attacks on bloggers, restrictions on Internet freedom, and religious freedom, tightening control over research organizations and the media."
Clinton made the remarks in response to a question at a ceremony to mark new partnerships between Vietnam and American companies Boeing and Microsoft, capping a trip that focused on strengthening economic ties.
Cao, who is to meet the Vietnamese ambassador on Nov. 30, said the Obama administration has not given him feedback on his bill, but he assumes "they would support targeting individuals responsible for human-rights violations."
Yet he says the White House is neglecting Vietnam's increasing human rights violations in its quest for economic opportunities. "I believe the president and secretary of State, because they are so focused on trying to improve economic relations with Vietnam, that they have basically pushed the issues of human rights and religious freedom to the side, and that's unfortunate," said Cao, who was born in Saigon and came to America in 1975 as an 8-year-old refugee.
Cao said the administration should put Vietnam back on the Country of Particular Concern (CPC) list, which notes nations that severely violate religious freedom. The list includes other Asian communist nations — China and North Korea, and the military state of Myanmar — but Vietnam was removed from the list in 2006 shortly before then-President George W. Bush attended a regional summit in Hanoi.
Royce introduced a bill last year with 25 bipartisan co-sponsors, including Cao, that would "strongly encourage" the State Department to put Vietnam back on the list. The House adopted on voice vote a Royce amendment to the annual State Department funding bill to support the designation.
"As the current state of human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam is deplorable, the State Department’s decision not to relist Vietnam as a CPC is extraordinarily short-sighted," Royce said in a statement before the Thanksgiving recess when the new annual CPC report did not re-list Vietnam. "Secretary Clinton’s call for Vietnam to value the rights of its citizens look like empty words."
"We need to continue to demand for changes in Vietnam," said Cao, stressing that will be his mission regardless of whether he's a sitting congressman or not.
"I will continue to fight for religious freedom and democracy in Vietnam in whatever way that I can," he vowed.