Committee on Foreign Affairs
Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations
Hearing of April 11, 2013: Highlighting Vietnamese Government Human Rights Violations in Advance of the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue
Testimony of John Sifton
Asia Advocacy Director
Human Rights Watch 

First, let me thank the committee for inviting me to testify. The committee is to be commended for its repeated efforts to draw the world’s attention to Vietnam’s human rights record.

Unfortunately, I must report today that the record has not improved. Since this subcommittee held a hearing on Vietnam last year, Vietnam’s rights situation has worsened. The numbers are clear, and as numbers they can’t lie, so there really isn’t any doubt about it. The simple fact is that a growing number of dissidents—including religious leaders, bloggers, and politically active people—are being convicted and sent to jail for violations of Vietnam’s authoritarian penal code, which prohibits public criticism of the government and the communist party.

In 2012, at least 40 people are known to have been convicted and sentenced to prison in such trials, an increase from 2011, which itself was an increase from 2010.

Alarmingly, another 40 people were convicted in political trials in just the first six weeks of 2013, matching the total for 2012. To repeat: in the first six weeks of 2013, as many people have been convicted in political trials as in the whole of 2012.

These trials have themselves led to other arrests. During protests at some of these hearings, other activists have been detained, and some of those arrested have reported beatings and even sexual assault. One blogger wrote an account of being detained temporarily after a well-known trial in late December 2012, being beaten, and then forced to undergo a cavity search, in front of several police officers—sheer humiliation of the grossest form.

There has also been an official campaign in recent months to suppress critical comments about the process, currently underway, of amending Vietnam’s constitution. This appears to have been a factor in the arrest on December 27, 2012 of human rights-defending lawyer Le Quoc Quan and in official harassment and intimidation during February and March 2013 against several other critics.

Thuggish harassment also seems to be on the rise. Just this week, at almost midnight on Monday night, unidentified men threw a bucket of rotten rice water, fish-heads and fish intestines into the house of the writer Huynh Ngoc Tuan, who was the 2012 recipient of Human Rights Watch’s Hellman Hammett grant, for writers who have been victims of political persecution. And on April 8 and April 9, mere days ago, bloggers Bui Thi Minh Hang and Nguyen Chi Duc were attacked by thugs; police who were nearby reportedly failed to intervene—which affirms the common sense hypothesis that the unknown attackers are, in reality, government actors, either paid goons or police out of uniform.

While the trend-lines show a worsening situation, it should still be noted that none of this is new. Vietnam has unjustly imprisoned political prisoners for decades. Several of its current political prisoners have been in detention for decades. And in some instances these prisoners have been denied proper medical care for deteriorating health conditions.

One of these is 66-year-old Nguyen Huu Cau, first detained in 1975, then rearrested in 1982 and held ever since. His health has reportedly deteriorated recently. One suggestion we have made to the Vietnamese government is that, even if they disagree with human rights groups about reversing their crackdowns, and repealing their draconian laws, they at least agree with us that very elderly or very sick prisoners need not suffer in detention when, whatever the merits of their supposed crimes, they can pose no threat—to the government, the party, or the people of Vietnam.

There are, of course, many other human rights issues to discuss with respect to Vietnam. Religious freedom. Administrative detention and forced labor for alleged drug users. Internet blocking and filtering, the fact that more websites are being blocked on Vietnam ISPs. Each of these issues is discussed in Human Right Watch’s annual World Report 2013, the Vietnam Chapter, which I have included as an appendix to my testimony and which I submit for the record now.

I also submit a recent statement from Human Rights Watch on the occasion of the US-Vietnam human rights dialogue. As that statement makes clear, the focus now really needs to be on the Vietnamese government. This is something on which we and everyone in the U.S. government agrees, both in the State Department, at the White House, and on this subcommittee: that the spotlight is now on Vietnam, to give some kind of sign that it will address these issues, and not ignore them. And in this context, it is important that everyone stand together and insist that they do so, and explain to them that the U.S. relationship with Vietnam—which as a basic matter has improved in the past year years—will not continue to improve unless Vietnam’s government undertakes serious reforms to address the human rights problems we’ve spoken about today.

I would be happy to take questions from the committee on the issues discussed in those documents or in my testimony today.

Thank you.