In Vietnam, Kerry Broaches Human Rights – Cautiously

December 16, 2013 - 5:30 AM


Vietnamese lawyer and dissident Le Quoc Quan, right, listens to the judge during his trial in Hanoi on Oct. 2, 2013. He was sentenced to to 30 months in prison for "tax evasion." (AP Photo)

(Update: After meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart on Monday, Secretary Kerry told reporters that during discussions on human rights he had “raised individual cases of individual people and situations, and we had a very direct and healthy exchange about this.”)

( – Urged to be vocal about human rights during his visit to Vietnam, Secretary of State John Kerry at the weekend did call on the communist authorities to protect rights, but without mentioning specific abuses or calling publicly for the release of political prisoners after an increase in convictions this year.

What Kerry did say came during remarks to American Chamber of Commerce members and participants in a Fulbright education program in Ho Chi Minh City, where he linked rights and economic prosperity.

“A commitment to an open Internet, to a more open society, to the rights of people to be able to exchange their ideas, to high-quality education, to a business environment that supports innovative companies, and to the protection of individual people’s human rights and their ability to be able to join together, express their views – all of these things create a more vibrant and a more powerful economy as well as a society,” he said.

“It strengthens a country; it doesn’t weaken it. And the United States urges leaders here to embrace that possibility and to protect those rights.”

As Kerry traveled to Vietnam for his first visit as secretary of state, a senior State Department official told reporters accompanying him that he would raise human rights in his meetings, “as he always has” when talking to Vietnamese officials.

“These are conversations, not lectures,” the official added.

The official said in reply to a question that Kerry does raise specific cases in these discussions, but asked whether he would do so in public on this trip, the official said face-to-face meetings with senior visit would give him the opportunity “to be direct in private.”

Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran and antiwar activist, later supported the development of ties between the former enemies. In Senate leadership positions he opposed measures linking aid to Vietnam to its human rights record.

Campaigners have said for years that Hanoi is getting a pass on human rights even as it benefits from a deepening diplomatic and trade relationship with the United States. And they say the situation is worsening rather than improving, with an increase in 2013 in the number of arrests and convictions for dissent.

Reporters Without Borders says bloggers and cyber-dissidents convicted on what it calls “trumped-up charges” are serving sentences of up to 13 years’ imprisonment. Only China has a larger number of such people in prison, the free-speech group says.

Vaguely-worded regulations that came into force over the summer (“Decree 72”) outlaw the posting online of any material that “opposes” the Socialist Republic of Vietnam or “harms national security.”

In October Le Quoc Quan, a dissident Catholic lawyer and blogger, was sentenced to 30 months in prison for “tax evasion.”

According to Human Rights Watch, Vietnamese courts have convicted at least 63 people for free speech acts this year, an increase over 40 cases in 2012. It says Vietnam now has at least 150 political prisoners in custody.

They include blogger Nguyen Van Hai, 60, who was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment in late 2012 for “conducting propaganda against the state,” having already completed a two-and-a-half-year sentence for “tax evasion.”

Nguyen Van Ly, a 67 year-old Catholic priest, has been in and out of Vietnamese prisons for more than 18 years since the 1970s, and was most recently returned to prison in 2011.

Human Rights Watch called on Kerry to “be vocal” and “speak clearly” about the abuses during his visit.

Asia advocacy director John Sifton said Kerry was expected to raise concerns with the government. “but it is unclear how public his comments will be,” adding that “brave Vietnamese activists need and expect full-throated U.S. support of their rights.”

A bipartisan group of 47 members of Congress urged Kerry in a letter ahead of his trip to “put human rights first” and to link the issue to progress on talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposed trade agreement involving 11 countries, including Vietnam.

“Secretary Kerry must emphasize that Vietnam’s egregious human rights abuses need to be stopped before the United States enters into any economic partnership,” said Congressional Caucus on Vietnam co-chair Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.).

Freedom to worship

Religious freedom is another longstanding concern. The U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) says in its most recent report Vietnam severely restricts independent religious activity by Protestant Christians, Buddhists and others, and that tries to stop the growth of ethnic minority Protestantism and Catholicism via discrimination, violence and forced renunciations of faith.

While in the city formerly known as Saigon, Kerry attended Mass at the landmark Notre Dame Cathedral. The State Department official said beforehand that the church visit “would certainly have a positive resonance as symbolic of the appropriateness of freedom and the importance of freedom of worship.”

A decade ago the Bush administration designated Vietnam as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) for religious freedom violations on the recommendation of the USCIRF, but delisted it in 2006, saying diplomatic outreach had led to significant improvements.

The USCIRF, an independent statutory watchdog, has been urging redesignation ever since, to no avail.  Despite critics’ concerns, and new regulations requiring all religious groups to re-apply for official registration (“Decree 92”), the State Department said last May there had been “positive” movement in the religious freedom situation in Vietnam.

Hanoi maintains that it has improved human rights and says that the West does not understand its particular conditions.

When President Truong Tan Sang visited Washington last July he said in reference to human rights that the U.S. and Vietnam had “distinct cultural and historical circumstances,” adding that he hoped in his meetings to give Americans a “better understanding about the real situation in Vietnam.”

Last month members of the U.N. General Assembly elected Vietnam onto the world body’s Human Rights Council for the next three years. Of 14 countries running for a seat on the Geneva-based council, Vietnam received the most support in the 193-member UNGA – 184 votes.