U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Relations

Daniel Baer
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
As-prepared statement to House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific
Washington, DC
June 5, 2013

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, thank you for holding this hearing. We appreciate your concern about the human rights situation in Vietnam, and are pressing the government for needed reforms.

The Department of State recently submitted to Congress both the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and the Report on International Religious Freedom. These two reports prepared by my bureau with collaboration from colleagues at posts around the world, provide a detailed snapshot of the facts underlying our concerns relating to human rights in Vietnam. I commend them to you.

In April I led a delegation to Vietnam that included representatives from the White House and the Department of Homeland Security for the U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue. We emphasized that 2013 represents an opportunity for the government of Vietnam to choose to improve its human rights record, and laid out some of the urgent areas for work.

We acknowledged positive steps such as the release (albeit with restrictions) of activist Le Cong Dinh, facilitation of a visit by an international human rights organization, and a modest uptick in church registrations in the Highlands. We welcomed discussions between the government and the Vatican, and also what appears to be potential positive movement for the human rights of LGBT persons. We are watching with great interest the flood of public comments about the draft Constitution and are encouraged by the government’s decision to extend the comment period. It is now incumbent upon authorities to give those comments serious review and to incorporate citizens’ concerns into the revised text of the Constitution.

But these steps are not enough to reverse a years-long trend of deterioration. Nor have the isolated positive steps formed a consistent pattern. In increasing numbers, bloggers continue to be harassed and jailed for peaceful online speech and activists live under a continual cloud – activists such as Nguyen Van Dai and Pham Hong Son, whom authorities blocked from meeting with me in Hanoi.

The human rights situation reflects a systemic lack of fairness that has implications for every aspect of the relationship. Let me outline a few of our concerns.

Many of Vietnam’s more than 120 political prisoners are in jail for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Cu Huy Ha Vu, whose wife I met with in Hanoi, criticized publicly the corruption associated with bauxite mining and was sentenced to seven years in prison. Ta Phong Tan is in prison for writing online about police corruption. Nguyen Van Hai, or Dieu Cay, peacefully expressed his views online and protested his country’s policy towards China and is now serving a 12-year sentence. The state has deemed these individuals a threat, a national security concern – a charge clearly unfounded when you sit down and have a conversation with individuals such as Father Ly, whom I was able to meet in prison. Do Thi Minh Hanh, Doan Huy Chuong, and Nguyen Hoang Quoc Hung were arrested in February 2010 for distributing pamphlets calling for democratic freedoms. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention advised their release.

Development of a modern, successful, and fair country requires the free flow of information—the exchange of ideas and innovation. Yet Vietnam seeks to control information, even as that control is increasingly slipping. We are very concerned about Vietnam’s Internet policies of blocking, hacking, surveillance, and its detention of bloggers. Draft regulations on Internet content management, seek to restrict the flow of information further.

Nonetheless, Vietnam’s Internet penetration continues to grow, and the country has seen a blossoming of blogs that continue to attract the interest of large numbers of reform-minded Vietnamese – including Dan Luan and Thong Tan Xa Vanh Anh. Other reform-minded websites, such as Anh Ba Sam have been targeted with hacking and disabling.

A frequent refrain I hear whenever I visit Vietnam is the need for better implementation of laws that are on the books. Constitutionally, citizens have the right to free speech, freedom of religious belief, and other human rights. But we all know, for example, that many members of Christian, Buddhist, and other groups face harassment and are required to, but then not allowed to register. The new Decree 92, which came into effect in January could be implemented in a manner that further restricts, rather than promotes, religious freedom guaranteed in the constitution.

Vietnamese laws guarantee access to a lawyer and guarantee defense lawyers’ equal standing with the prosecutor. Reality, though, plays out differently. I have heard repeatedly from the lawyers of political prisoners who are not permitted access to case files, who are given unequal accommodations in courtrooms, are not allowed to use computers, and are not allowed time to defend their clients.

And some laws clearly need to change—laws that run counter to international human rights norms such as Articles 79 and 88, which are used to detain political activists critical of the state.

In closing, I’d note that over the 18-plus years since normalization, ties between Vietnam and the United States have improved – through trade, travel, and cultural connections. Those on both sides of the ocean have benefitted, but in particular, Vietnamese living in Vietnam, where the standard of living has increased as the population becomes better off and more educated. As we talk about human rights, we should all remember that our concerns are really echoes of the concerns being voiced and discussed by millions of people inside Vietnam. They get it. They know the status quo won’t do. They see that although Vietnam has become a more prosperous country, without progress on human rights, there are limits to what Vietnam can achieve.

We want to reinforce them, and we want to work closely with Members of the Committee to push Vietnam to improve its protection of human rights.

Again, thank you for holding this hearing. I look forward to working with you, and am happy to take your questions.