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When Australian prime minister Tony Abbott meets his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Tan Dung in Canberra this week will he simply praise Vietnam’s economic progress while staying silent about its deplorable human rights situation? It’s all too likely. After all, the Australian government has made a habit of honouring countries like Cambodia, Sri Lanka and China as “good friends” of Australia while ignoring their poor rights records.

Our “friends” shouldn’t get off so easily. Vietnam is one of the world’s few remaining one-party communist states. For nine years, Dung has overseen the suppression of basic freedoms, widespread censorship, and control of religion. More than 100 political prisoners are currently behind bars in Vietnam.

In prison are women like 48-year-old Ho Thi Bich Khuong, a blogger and land rights activist who has exposed suffering of farmers kicked off their land, showing the largely invisible human cost of Vietnam’s rapid economy growth. The Vietnamese authorities have reacted to Khuong’s efforts with repression and prosecution: she has been in and out of jail, and is currently serving a five-year sentence for “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”

Also imprisoned is 46-year-old Mai Thi Dung, a Buddhist activist. The Vietnamese government routinely monitors and harasses religious groups that operate outside the official government-registered religions her independent Hoa Hao group has faced intrusive police surveillance and intimidation. The courts sentenced her to a total of 11 years in prison for her role in Hoa Hao protests.

The Australian government is well aware of the problems faced by activists like these. Australia supposedly raises political prisoner cases during forums such as the annual Australia-Vietnam human rights dialogue. But those closed-door discussions between mid-level officials are largely a theatrical exercise.

Indeed, in a cynical affront to the very spirit of a human rights dialogue, last year Vietnamese authorities prevented several activists from joining a workshop on media freedom partially hosted by the Australian government.

This dialogue, like Australia’s other human rights dialogues with China and Laos, suffers from a credibility gap because of a lack of transparency about what’s actually discussed, and a failure to provide clear public benchmarks to measure incremental progress on rights. 

The dialogue’s existence does not mean Abbott and Julie Bishop, the foreign minister, should shy away from raising these cases with Dung during his visit. Abbott has talked a lot about the importance of freedoms of speech and expression in Australia. The people of Vietnam are in desperate need of these freedoms, which have been trampled by the government.

By any account Vietnam has made little to no progress on issues like freedom of expression and religion, with critics of the government inevitably ending up in prison for their dissent. If Australian leaders fail to back up private discussions with public statements of grave concern, it’s not only a missed opportunity, but a failure to stand up for the repressed Vietnamese people.

Australia should of course seek to have good relations with its neighbours. That also means raising human rights concerns – that is to say, being friends with the whole population of Vietnam, not just its rulers. 

Benign statements of friendship with authoritarians do have consequences for the populations of authoritarian regimes. When the Australian government lauded Sri Lanka’s former president Mahinda Rajapaksa while downplaying his government’s atrocities in the country’s civil war, this gave political cover to his ongoing crackdown on government critics and defiance of international pressure for a UN inquiry into war crimes. 

With Rajapaksa’s defeat in the last election, and a new Sri Lankan government that has spoken out against Australia’s silence on human rights abuses, Australia now looks to be on the wrong side of history. “When human rights were being trampled, and democracy was at bay, these countries were silent. That is an issue for Sri Lanka,” new prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said in February.

Australia, of course, has its own serious human rights shortcomings, including its treatment of refugees and Indigenous people. A country’s own human rights problems should not be an excuse for ignoring human rights violations elsewhere. 

Both public and private messages conveyed to Dung during this visit matter very much – to the Vietnamese people as well as the government. Raising human rights concerns is not “lecturing”, as Abbott is wont to say. It’s about taking a consistent and principled position on fundamental rights that all nations, including Vietnam, have agreed to uphold.

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