Engaging Vietnam on Human Rights

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Engaging Vietnam on Human Rights

Australia and the US have very different approaches to engaging with Vietnam on its human rights record.

Engaging Vietnam on Human Rights
Credit: REUTERS/Kham

When human rights in Vietnam are discussed in the international community it is invariably the nation’s track record on freedom of speech, or lack thereof, which takes precedence. The communist nation is regularly excoriated for its human rights track record, by which critics usually mean the locking up of bloggers, but the issues that so concern many of those same bloggers – corruption, police brutality, and workers’ rights, among others – are often all but absent from the majority of discussions about human rights, at least publicly.

For its part, Australia rarely publicly criticizes Vietnam’s record – a stake contrast to the U.S. approach – but Canberra does do plenty of work behind closed doors on issues of concern. In fact Australia held its regular human rights dialogue with Vietnam on July 28, with side events on the 29th and 30th. Groups such as Human Rights Watch called on the Australian government to raise issues related to the jailing of so many bloggers and journalists. Look for news on the event and you will likely find Human Rights Watch’s statements in the lead-up, but very little after. You certainly won’t find any public condemnations from Australia, in marked contrast to its close ally the United States.

Australia has a very different human rights policy to the United States. It does not often publicly comment on the arrests of bloggers or other violations of freedom of speech, although it has been holding human rights dialogues with Vietnam for 12 years now. Last year, then-Foreign Minister Bob Carr did publicly raise human rights issues at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ dialogue in Brunei regarding three Australian nationals imprisoned for their apparent roles in a factory strike, as well as the fates of dissidents Cu Huy Ha Vu and Le Quoc Quan, but this was a rare exception.

Australia has held seminars with a number of Vietnamese government bodies, including the Vietnam Women’s Union and the Ministry of Justice. It has sponsored human rights courses at the Ho Chi Minh Political Academy and has helped revise relevant laws. Government members or police and army personnel also visit Australia for training.

The U.S. approach is necessarily public, as vocal human rights dialogues have long been part of the nation’s foreign policy. Varied secretaries of State, secretaries of Defense and even the president have called for the freeing of bloggers. Human Rights Watch estimates between 150 to 200 political prisoners are currently imprisoned.

The United States also has a very large and organized Vietnamese community that pushes for better human rights from Hanoi. Australia also has a large Vietnamese community (Nguyen is one of the most common names in the phone book), but despite the presence of pro-democracy group Viet Tan (illegal and deemed a terrorist organization in Vietnam) they are rarely as engaged as their American counterparts.

Yet there are downsides to the U.S. approach. Academic and dissident Cu Huy Ha Vu, who was recently released from detention and sent to the U.S., wrote in a recent Washington Post article that “The Vietnamese government treats prisoners of conscience as commodities to barter with the United States and other Western countries for security and trade benefits as well as foreign aid. Vietnam has stocked a reserve of prisoners of conscience for future bargaining.”

The international dialogue centers mostly around prisoners of conscience, dissidents and crackdowns on bloggers. The treatment of drug addicts or ordinary prisoners, the rights of workers, or illegal seizures are addressed by human rights groups and international organizations but they get far less oxygen than the detainment of well-organized political activists. Although Human Rights Watch did make a point of calling on Australia to bring up the treatment of drug addicts in detention.

All these are issues that deeply concern many of the detained activists, yet it is mainly their detainment that concerns the United States, rather than the systemic corruption and violations of basic human rights (such as the right not to be beaten to death by police for not wearing a helmet when riding pillion on a scooter).

Australia’s efforts to quietly strengthen systems of good governance may have a place in improving human rights, although it will not change a system that locks up anything that looks like a threat to the regime. It’s also important to understand that Hanoi, and Vietnamese in general, dislike being lectured to by foreigners.

Two years ago I wrote in an Australian publication that Australia has had some quiet success in getting people out of prison. Australian national Hong Vo was detained after staging a mini protest in Hanoi in 2010 when trying to leave Vietnam via Tan Son Nhat airport. Although it may have seemed unlikely that Vietnam would keep a foreign national, both American and French citizens of Vietnamese descent have done long stretches in prison in Vietnam. Vo spent only ten days.

And Australia is not the United States. It is a middle power unable to offer the same strategic and economic advantages of a close partnership that the United States offers. Of course, calling for the release of certain dissidents seems logical, and right. But if they are bargaining chips to be stored it is less than a halfway measure. What would be more useful would be to call for the abolition of the laws under which bloggers, dissidents and journalists are imprisoned. There are three: Article 258, which is helpfully obtuse but refers to abusing democratic freedoms, Article 79, which covers activities aimed at overthrowing the Communist Party, and Article 88, which concerns propaganda against the state. Activists have been trying especially to get 258 struck off the books, and they do take heart when foreign nations support them.

Religious freedom is one area the U.S. has concentrated on, with some success, it says. Condemnation of religious persecution is public, but much work is also done at quieter levels.

In Vietnam, religious groups must be registered with the government, which often refuses registration. Although religious freedom is in the Vietnamese constitution (along with freedom of speech) its observation is patchy, at best. The U.S. State Department recently released a report on religious freedom, which noted: “Many unregistered religious groups reported abuses, with a particularly high number of reports coming from the Central and Northwest Highlands… The government, however, registered an increased number of religious groups… There were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.”

The UN Special Rapporteur’s conclusions after a recent visit were somewhat different: He said that he was closely monitored by security officials and denied visits to some activists who had been placed under house arrest prior to his arrival, making a full assessment difficult. Though he’d noted there had been a general increase in religious freedoms in recent times, “there are serious violations of freedom of religion or belief taking place in this country.”

Concerns over freedom of expression and human rights are not merely for foreign governments or local activists: There is debate within the government also, even inside the ever-opaque Party. Reformers wonder if the harsh repression of today may in the longer term cause greater problems, even as hardliners remain determined to cling to power no matter the cost.

Most recently 60 high-level members of the Communist Party urged leaders to “escape” China’s political and economic influence. In a letter, they claimed that the Party had led Vietnam “the wrong way” through its one-party system and lack of free speech. This may have also helped foster systemic corruption.

Vietnam, of course, believes in human rights, as long as those rights don’t threaten the state or the Communist Party. The nation is currently midway through its session on the United Nations Human Rights Council and just made a point of calling for a ceasefire in Gaza after the number of civilian casualties surged. When human rights violations occur abroad, Hanoi is interested. Inside the country, however, interest continues to be piecemeal.

Helen Clark was based in Hanoi for six years as a reporter and magazine editor. She has written for two dozen publications including The Diplomat (as Bridget O’Flaherty), Time, The Economist, the Asia Times Online and the Australian Associated Press