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European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem holds a news conference in Brussels, Belgium June 1, 2018. © 2018 Reuters

Cecilia Malmström, the European Union’s trade commissioner, will hold talks on Monday with Trần Tuấn Anh, Vietnam’s trade and industry minister, about concluding a long negotiated Free Trade Agreement. Based on the EU Commission’s figures, the pact could boost Vietnam’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 15 percent.

The EU says it has designed its trade policy as a tool to promote human rights in line with its founding treaty and pledges by EU foreign ministers. The agreed text does include some vague provisions that could lead to “unilateral measures” to address serious human rights violations. The problem is that those abuses are longstanding and they are systemic.

Vietnam’s government is among the world’s most repressive. It severely restricts basic freedoms of expression, association, assembly, and religion. It owns and controls all media in the country and censors the internet. The Communist Party of Vietnam monopolizes the leadership of all public institutions and uses them to maintain its hold on power. Since coming to power in 1954, the party has never allowed free and fair elections or pluralism of any kind.

The courts and all ministries are under party control. Independent trade unions are prohibited, and social organizations, religious groups, and other independent groups are tightly regulated. Hundreds of bloggers and activists are locked up or face daily police intimidation, surveillance and interrogation for exercising their basic rights to free expression.

The party and government regularly look for new ways to keep Vietnamese citizens from exercising basic freedoms that Europeans take for granted. On June 12, Vietnam’s National Assembly passed a draft cyber security law with sweeping powers to arbitrarily punish online dissent. This law requires internet service providers to provide information about its users, take down content the police deem inappropriate, and stop providing services to users the government disfavors. Protesters who peacefully took to the streets against the law’s proposed special economic zones were harassed, detained and assaulted by the police.

Vietnam’s eagerness for the trade agreement provides an opportunity to demand concrete human rights improvements. Vague commitments will be meaningless and only serve to make the EU feel self-satisfied. Any agreement should include clear provisions to improve human rights and clear consequences. The EU has an opportunity to use its considerable bargaining power on behalf of the Vietnamese people. Commissioner Malmström should seize it.

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