From Saigon to Kabul, leaving must not mean giving up on human rights
Painful memories of America’s failed war in Vietnam have been front and center as the world has watched the tragic events unfolding in Afghanistan. References to a “Saigon moment,” with disturbing images of helicopters evacuating from the American Embassy and scenes of chaos and terror at the Kabul airport, are terrible reminders that the fight for democracy and human rights is never abstract. Real people suffer when the forces of tyranny and repression prevail.
In the 46 years since the fall of Saigon, the United States and Vietnam have normalized their relations across many sectors: diplomatic, commercial and cultural. Yet the fact remains that the Vietnamese government continues to rule over an authoritarian one-party state that fails to respect basic human rights for its citizens.
One of the most egregious examples of Vietnam’s contempt for human rights is its ongoing persecution of religious communities and individual religious believers. The victims of Vietnam’s religious persecution range from the Unified Buddhist Church and the Hòa Hảo Buddhists to Protestant and Catholic congregations and minority communities, including the Hmong and Montagnards, many of whom have converted to Christianity. This ongoing, systemic violation of human rights is a tragedy for the people of Vietnam. It has led the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to recommend repeatedly that Vietnam be placed on the United States government’s list of “countries of particular concern,” though the State Department has not in recent years chosen to follow this recommendation. Religious persecution has continued in Vietnam with complete impunity.
The U.S. and Vietnam have many shared strategic interests in the face of rising Chinese dominance, but it will be difficult to develop a successful partnership if Vietnam continues to violate freedom of religion and belief. On the other hand, Vietnam can become a more vibrant and successful nation if it stops trying to limit its people’s ability to exercise this fundamental human right.
President Biden and Vice President Harris have frequently stated that the protection of human rights lies at the very center of their foreign policy. Vice President Harris’ upcoming visit to Vietnam provides the administration with an opportunity to demonstrate the sincerity of these words.
One of the most high-profile victims of Vietnam’s abuse of religious freedom is the distinguished legal scholar Nguyễn Bắc Truyển. This respected member of the Hòa Hảo Buddhist community was first abducted by the authorities in July 2017. After being held incommunicado for six months, Mr. Truyển was sentenced to 11 years in prison. What was the “crime” for which this quiet, dignified man was convicted? His courageous collection of evidence on violations of religious freedom and forwarding these reports to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. During his incarceration, Mr. Truyển has been denied adequate food and proper medical attention and it is widely known that his health has significantly deteriorated over the past four years. This dire situation led the UN Secretary-General to speak out on Mr. Truyển’s behalf in a 2020 report on intimidations and reprisals against groups and individuals who have cooperated with the United Nations.
Mr. Truyển’s imprisonment is not an isolated case. There are numerous such prisoners of conscience in Vietnam, serving lengthy sentences in deplorable and dangerous conditions: Bùi Văn Trung and his son Bùi Văn Thâm, also Hòa Hảo Buddhists; Phan Văn Thu, a leader of the banned An Dan Dai Dao Buddhist sect; Montagnard Christian Pastor Y Yich; Hoàng Đức Bình, a Catholic activist and blogger; and the list goes on.
We urge Vice President Harris to take the opportunity during her visit to Vietnam to put human rights squarely on the agenda and to advocate vigorously for the release of Nguyễn Bắc Truyển. This would represent an important gesture of good faith and goodwill on the part of the Vietnamese government and might even open the door to greater human rights reforms in this Southeast Asian nation — and to the release of others who have been imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of belief.
The United States cannot always prevent the human rights violations that follow when it withdraws — we have seen this over several decades in Vietnam and, tragically, we will almost certainly see it in Afghanistan. Despite this sad reality, the U.S. must never abdicate or duck the responsibility to use its influence and the leverage it does have to advocate forcefully for prisoners of conscience and to press for human rights reform. It is the very least we can do for these countries and for the brave men and women we have left behind.
Authors: Ambassador Samuel Brownback was the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom from 2018 to 2021 and is a former U.S. senator and governor of Kansas. Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett is President of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice and the former Chair and Vice-Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. They served as Co-Chairs of the inaugural IRF Summit, which took place in July 2021.