No more free passes for Vietnam on human rights

When President Donald Trump meets with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc Wednesday, May 31 in Washington, he has a chance to change policies of the past that failed to advance either U.S. interests or those of the Vietnamese people.

The president is not afraid to challenge stagnant diplomatic verities, and he should do so again here by recognizing that Vietnam’s dismal human rights record hinders long-term U.S. national interests. Vietnam's rising generation of future leaders would warmly welcome more robust efforts to promote individual rights and the U.S. has considerable leverage to bring about tangible reforms if improvements are linked to expanded U.S.-Vietnam relations.

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The president will likely focus on America’s trade deficit with Vietnam and seek to exploit the complicated relationship between Hanoi and Beijing over lucrative territories claimed by both in the South China Sea. 

These issues are important. But it would be a mistake to view U.S.-Vietnam relations only through the lenses of economics or security.

Vietnam has one of the world’s worst human rights records with severe censorship of the Internet and press, harsh restrictions on religious and ethnic communities, and active suppression of political participation and environmental demonstrations. There are over 100 prisoners of conscience. Human Rights Watch says Vietnam’s record is “abysmal” and Freedom House consistently ranks Vietnam as “Not Free.”   

Despite these facts, Vietnam often gets a free pass on human rights. There is little media coverage of human rights abuses and diplomats are so focused on the fact that Vietnam is “not China” that this oppressive police state is granted trade and security benefits without conditions.  

At a hearing I chaired at the House Foreign Relations Committee last week, we learned that Vietnam’s diverse religious and ethnic minority groups face escalating harassment, torture and prison in part because of their perceived U.S. ties, their history opposing the Communist Party, or their desire to be independent of Hanoi’s control. Montagnard and Hmong Christians in particular have experienced violence and forced renunciations of faith because theirs is an “American religion.”  

Over the past several years, Vietnamese officials deliberately targeted their citizens for interacting with foreign diplomats. Tran Thi Hong was savagely beaten for meeting with the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom on behalf of her imprisoned Lutheran pastor husband, Nguyen Cong Chinh, who is serving an 11 year sentence.

In addition to severe religious freedom restrictions, Vietnam has also taken unprecedented steps to curtail Internet freedom, with some of the region’s most intrusive laws. Vietnam’s active community of bloggers and netizens have recently become the target of censorship and arrest. At least 19 bloggers were convicted since 2016 and some activists including Nguyen Van Dai, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynhand Tran Anh Kim are still being held without trial.

The president should think twice about warmly embracing Vietnam’s Communist leaders, as their repressive authoritarianism and disregard for international standards run counter to U.S. interests. Governments that brutally assault the fundamental human rights of their own people are unlikely to become trustworthy allies on issues of trade or security.

If history is a guide, the president’s championing of individual rights will meet with some success. The Vietnamese government has responded to concerns raised by past administrations. Whether to gain access to the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), or to address concerns over religious freedom abuses, the Vietnamese government took halting steps when reform was linked to better U.S.-Vietnam relations.

The business of the Communist Party is staying in power and they pragmatically respond when U.S. interest in reform is high and there are economic or security benefits available. But when U.S. interest wanes and Hanoi receives desired capital, investment and trade without conditions—it resumes its repressive ways.

It may be inconvenient to raise sensitive issues with a new guest. But if the president focuses on the narrowest view of U.S. interests, such as containing China's rise or rebalancing a trade deficit, he will fail to address the deep longing for freedom emanating from Vietnam’s up and coming generation—66 percent which is under 40 years old. They are Vietnam's vibrant future. This demographic is one of the globe’s most pro-American, they want the same opportunities and freedoms available to their relatives in California, Texas, Virginia, and all places where Vietnamese immigrants have flourished.

A narrow view also fails to recognize that an emphasis on Internet freedom, religious freedom, independent labor unions, adherence to international standards, and the release of prisoners of conscience is critical to U.S. economic interests, directly related to a better business climate, less corruption, investor confidence, the rule of law, product safety, and the development of a robust civil society.

With its economic potential, dynamic population and critical location, a free and modern Vietnam has the potential to be the strategic anchor of the region and a close U.S. ally. Realizing such a vision will require President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Dems demand Barr cancel 'inappropriate' press conference on Mueller report DOJ plans to release 'lightly redacted' version of Mueller report Thursday: WaPo Nadler accuses Barr of 'unprecedented steps' to 'spin' Mueller report MORE and his team to think long-term. The U.S. should not be propping up the privileged elite of the Communist Party, but rather pressing for liberties and rights desired by the vast majority of the Vietnamese people.

Smith, elected to Congress in 1980, is Chair of the Global Human Rights Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Chair of the U.S. Commission on China.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.