President Barack Obama is hosting an uncommon visitor at the White House today: the president of Vietnam, Truong Tan Sang. Among the topics for discussion, the White House says, are trade and closer security and military ties. Human rights are also on the agenda, but as the administration pursues its Asia “pivot” or “rebalance,” the question is how hard Obama will push the leader of the long-entrenched one-party state.
Vietnam has a terrible and worsening human rights record, marked by systematic suppression of freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, media censorship, and repression of labor rights. Increasingly nervous about its hold on power, the ruling Communist Party has stepped up its persecution of citizens who question the government’s actions or call for democratic elections.
Since 2008, the last time the White House hosted a Vietnamese leader, the government has jailed a growing number of dissidents, bloggers, and religious leaders, whom the party-controlled courts have sentenced to increasingly lengthy sentences. Convictions in political cases in the first half of 2013 have already overtaken the total in 2012, which in turn exceeded the numbers in 2011 and 2010.
Worse, the crackdown on dissidents is but one facet of Vietnam’s rights problems. Abuses include torture and killings by police, confiscation of land without due process and compensation, and persecution of underground religious groups and ethnic minorities. Motorists who argue with police are beaten. Farmers’ land is stolen from them. People of faith are forced to renounce it. Ethnic minorities are persecuted for organizing to fight discrimination. Many Vietnamese struggle under this spell of unchecked brutality, either bloodied when trying to challenge it, or forced into quiet submission.
The Obama administration knows what the problems are, and insists that it raises human rights issues in its dialogues with the Vietnamese government. And this is true. The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi routinely intervenes and presses Vietnam on human rights cases, and the State Department engages in a yearly human rights dialogue with Vietnam. The White House has given assurances to members of Congress and rights groups that human rights concerns will be “raised” during the visit.
But it is not clear whether specific cases and problems will be raised, and whether they will be raised publicly. In his public remarks, will Obama mention specific cases, such as convicted dissident Cu Huy Ha Vu, the outspoken blogger Nguyen Van Hai (Dieu Cay), and the lawyer Le Quoc Quan, a persistent critic of the government awaiting trial on spurious “tax evasion” charges?
Strong presidential statements are important. In May 2012, Obama mentioned Nguyen Van Hai in a statement on World Press Freedom Day, praising his courage amid a “mass crackdown on citizen journalism in Vietnam.” The embassy has also raised concerns about Le Quoc Quan on several occasions — interventions that probably had some part in his release from prison on a previous occasion. These public statements send a message to brave activists in Vietnam that the world stands with them, and put pressure on the Vietnamese government to change course.
Ultimately, however, raising human rights issues is not enough. The real question is whether the administration is willing to put sustained pressure and take substantive measures to address Vietnam’s broader human rights situation. A failure to address the bigger picture — and go beyond intervention in specific cases — may have the effect of emboldening Hanoi: letting its leaders think they can get what they want from the United States while paying only lip service to human rights.
On July 24, the day before the visit, several U.S. unions and labor groups called on the administration to suspend Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiations with Vietnam until key rights issues are addressed. Several members of Congress have asked the White House to consider this course as well.
The administration’s hope, several years ago, was that opening up trade negotiations and a military strategic dialogue with Vietnam would serve as an incentive for the government to make changes, and perhaps soften its authoritarian edge. It now appears that hope was misplaced.
It is clear that U.S. policy needs to change — the question is how. The United States needs to start linking its economic and other relations with Vietnam to specific human rights reforms. And the message on this should be clear and public. As a first step, Obama should order the U.S. Trade Representative to make its basic demands in the TPP process public, so that workers and citizens in Vietnam – and the United States – can determine that basic labor rights are being upheld.
But the Obama administration should also be asking itself a more fundamental question: Should the United States continue to engage in business as usual with a government that criminalizes the act of calling for democracy, and shows no inclination toward reform?