US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton listens to live translation during a signing ceremony of a memorandum of understanding for the US support of HIV/AIDS programs in Vietnam, at Ngoc Lam Pagoda in Hanoi on July 22, 2010.

© 2010 Reuters

(New York) - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should highlight the importance of respect for human rights in Vietnam during her visit to Hanoi to attend the ASEAN Regional Forum on July 23, 2010, Human Rights Watch said today.

In both her public statements and private meetings with Vietnamese officials, Clinton should stress the priority that the US places on strengthening Vietnam's respect for human rights as part of bilateral relations, Human Rights Watch said.

"Secretary Clinton should make it clear that the US stands with Vietnam's courageous human rights defenders and peaceful democracy activists and will not abandon them to enhance security and trade ties," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Ten years after President William J. Clinton's historic visit to Vietnam and 15 years after normalization of relations with the US, Vietnam's progress in implementing economic reforms has not been matched by similar strides in protecting fundamental human rights. Clinton should make the case that Vietnam's long-term economic stability and prosperity depends on protecting the rights of the Vietnamese people to participate fully in forging their country's political, economic, and social future, Human Rights Watch said.

Vietnam remains a one-party state that restricts freedom of association and assembly, controls religious and labor organizations, bars independent media, obstructs free speech and unrestricted access to the internet, and harshly prosecutes its most prominent public critics, often sentencing them to long prison terms.

While Vietnam periodically releases a number of high-profile political prisoners at politically expedient moments, it has detained and imprisoned many hundreds more during the last ten years. These include democracy activists, human rights lawyers, internet writers, workers' rights advocates, and members of unsanctioned religious groups such as Montagnard Christians and leaders of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam.

"As chair of ASEAN, Vietnam should respect the human rights provisions of the ASEAN Charter and lead the region in a new commitment to promoting and protecting human rights," Robertson said. "Instead, Vietnam is driving ASEAN in reverse on human rights by blithely locking up peaceful critics, anti-corruption campaigners, independent church activists, internet writers, and others."

Repressive laws employed to silence or imprison government critics include national security provisions in Vietnam's penal code, such as restrictions on "abusing democratic freedoms," regulations that ban bloggers from posting articles about politics or issues the government considers state secrets, subversive, or threats to national security and social order; and Ordinance 44, which provides that peaceful dissidents and others deemed national security threats can be involuntarily committed to mental institutions, placed under house arrest, or detained in state-run "rehabilitation" centers - without trial.

"Vietnam has benefited immensely from growing US-Vietnam economic ties in the 15 years since relations were resumed, but the relationship should be a full two-way street in all aspects," Robertson said. "Secretary Clinton should signal that it's time for the Vietnamese government to act decisively to protect human rights defenders and community activists."

During Secretary Clinton's visit to Vietnam, Human Rights Watch urges her to:

  • Call on Vietnam to release all political and religious prisoners;
  • Emphasize that US willingness to engage with Vietnam on security and trade issues is contingent on Vietnam's respect for human rights and rule of law;
  • Encourage Vietnam to respect freedom of expression and end its efforts to censor and control the media and the internet by ceasing to create firewalls for popular human rights and democracy websites, and ending all state-sponsored or supported hacking of such websites;
  • Urge Vietnam to repeal legislation that restricts or criminalizes the right to peaceful dissent, particularly vague and problematic provisions on national security.

Background

The bilateral relationship between the United States and Vietnam has steadily improved during the last 20 years. In 1994, the US lifted its trade embargo on Vietnam, normalizing relations in 1995. The two countries exchanged ambassadors in 1997 and signed a Bilateral Trade Agreement in 2001.

Since 2006, foreign policy and security ties have grown dramatically, with the US and Vietnam exchanging high-level state visits, resuming an annual human rights dialogue, and embarking on military and anti-terror collaboration. The week of President George W. Bush's November 2006 visit to Hanoi, the US lifted its designation of Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern for religious freedom violations. Following Vietnam's entry into the World Trade Organization in January 2007, the US granted Vietnam permanent normal trade relations status.