One Thursday in July 2013, Barack Obama and his Vietnamese counterpart, Truong Tan Sang, sat down in the Oval Office to discuss Thomas Jefferson. Sang brought to this historic meeting between the two nation’s presidents a letter Ho Chi Minh had sent Harry Truman, prior to the Vietnam War, seeking cooperation with the United States. Uncle Ho’s words, said Obama, were “inspired by the words of Thomas Jefferson.” In fact, when the Proclamation of Independence was read by Ho in 1945, he chose to begin with an extract from America’s Declaration of Independence, its principal author being Jefferson.
While a visit to the White House by the Vietnamese president was an occasion for historical reflection, the here-and-now was what really mattered. Indeed, diplomacy and trade were the main talking points, signaling the start of an emboldened relationship between the two nations. But the U.S. president did at least mention Vietnam’s human right’s record.
“All of us have to respect issues like freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly. And we had a very candid conversation about both the progress that Vietnam is making and the challenges that remain,” Obama said after the meeting. Sang’s only comment was that the two men “have differences on the issue.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Little reported afterwards was the execution of a 27-year old Vietnamese man named Nguyen Anh Tuan, a convicted murderer, which took place on August 6, just two weeks after Sang’s visit to White House. Tuan’s execution was the first in years, and the first since Vietnam replaced firing squads with lethal injections in 2011. However, a ban on importing “authorized” lethal drugs meant it had to use untested domestic poisons. Tuan took two hours to die, reportedly in harrowing pain.
Between the date of Tuan’s death and June 30, 2016, Vietnam executed 429 people (or an average of 147 executions per year; or 12 each month). Additionally, 1,134 people were given death sentences between July 2011 and June 2016. The number remaining on “death row” is not known.
These figures only came to light after the public security ministry decided to release them in February. They are normally classified as state secrets and rarely revealed. Surprising many around the world who thought the numbers to be much lower, Amnesty International reported this month that Vietnam is now the world’s third-most prolific executioner of prisoners. Only China and Iran are thought to have executed more people.
In June 2016, the Paris-based Vietnam Committee on Human Rights provided a lengthy report on the death penalty’s mechanisms in Vietnam, explaining that capital punishment is applied for 18 different offenses, down from 44 in 1999.
Like many of its Southeast Asian neighbors this includes harsh drug laws, and Vietnam metes out the death penalty for those caught in possession or smuggling 100 grams or more of heroin or cocaine, or 5 kilograms or more of cannabis and other opiates. Other crimes, including murder and rape, also carry a death sentence.
After reforms during the 2000s, “the death penalty was effectively abolished on certain crimes, such as robbery, disobeying orders or surrendering to the enemy. But in other cases, crimes were simply re-worded to mask their appearance and deceive international opinion,” the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights report reads.
Particularly troubling is the fact that the Vietnamese regime wields capital punishment for vaguely-defined crimes of “infringing upon national security,” explains the report. These include carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration (Article 109 of the reformed Criminal Code), rebellion (article 112), and sabotaging the material-technical foundations of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (article 114).
Returning to the recent execution figures, it is worth considering why the regime would choose to announce them in February – knowing the reaction they would cause – and whether they are not masking a far larger number of executions.
One problem is that they came with no information as to what the prisoners were being executed for. We might assume that most were for drug offenses or murder, as has been the case in the past, but it is by no means certain. That leads one to wonder whether any of the people executed were arrested for simply protesting against the regime.
Even if they weren’t, capital punishment and human rights are by no means detached issues, as some claim. What is the connection between the drug trafficker, the murder and the human-rights activist in the regime’s eyes? They are all a risk to national security. Indeed, in his famed essay, “Of Crimes and Punishments,” Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria described the death penalty as a “war of the whole nation against a citizen whose destruction they consider necessary.”
But what is the “nation” in Vietnam? It is not just an arbitrary land defined borders. No – according the regime’s own laws, it is defined as akin to the “people’s administration.” Since the Communist Party and the Nation are effectively the same under the law, an attack on the Party becomes treasonous. Indeed, the law makes “no distinction between violent acts such as terrorism, and the peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression,” the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights report reads.
Moreover, what is a “citizen” in Vietnam? And if it is to be treasonous to attack the Party, and thereby the Nation, does this mean the person who wishes the end of the Party is not a citizen? When France did away with the peine de mort in the early 1980s, Francois Mitterrand’s Minister of Justice said the scaffold had come to symbolize “a totalitarian concept of the relationship between the citizen and the state.” It is this same totalitarian relationship that knots capital punishment and human rights in Vietnam.
What also catches the eye is the hubristic nature of Hanoi’s release of the execution figures, coming as they do as criticism of the regime increases. They might be better read as a boast, not an admission. The overriding message is: We are prepared to kill, and have done so more than most people thought.
Following the 2013 meeting between Obama and Sang, some pundits thought Obama’s ambition was to embolden Vietnam’s reformist politicians through diplomatic engagement and improved trade links. This became America’s foreign policy towards Hanoi for the next three years. It didn’t work, however, and suppression has remained as essential as ever for the Communist Party, perhaps even more so, especially as criticism of the Party’s rule nowadays swells on issues such an environmentalism.
So while Vietnam’s economy has flourished since Obama’s rapprochement, its civil society has languished somewhere between desperation and enviable bravery. Obama’s administration bears responsibility for this, and the strategic patience it gambled on played only into Hanoi’s hands. Naive, perhaps. Or just willfully remiss, as Vietnam’s amity was necessary for America’s counter-Beijing Asian ‘pivot’. Maybe, then, Vietnam’s activists were jettisoned for the sake of geopolitics – an unexceptional component of America’s Janus-faced foreign policy.
Today, however, U.S. trade links are far from assured. U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP has jeopardized the free-trade bounty Hanoi was counting on. Vietnam now appears keen to formalize a bilateral free-trade agreement with the US, and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said last month that he wants to visit Washington as soon as possible
In a perverse situation, Trump’s administration now wields the stick that Obama chose not to use. Moreover, it has the ability to bargain in a way Obama couldn’t: No trade pact without improved human rights. Since the Communist Party’s legitimacy depends on a growing economy – and a fifth of all Vietnam’s export are to the United States, which could be further hampered if Trump pushes through trade tariffs and increased taxes on imports – Hanoi might be strong-armed into opening up space for criticism, in return for the United States opening more trade links.
Still, this depends on how much Trump values a human-rights laden foreign policy, which some analysts claim he doesn’t. That said, the State Department’s decision to give the imprisoned Vietnamese activist Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh the “International Women of Courage Award” certainly irked Hanoi.
Perhaps this explains the adroit use of executions statistics by the Vietnamese regime, and the appropriate timing of their release. The numbers will raise hairs in Europe; the European Union (EU) bars membership for countries with capital punishment, though not for countries with which it agrees free-trade agreements, it seems. The EU-Vietnam FTA that should become effective next year but contains no condition regarding Vietnam abolishing the death penalty (surely patronizing, given that the EU has higher expectations of European countries than others).
The execution figures, however, put the United States in an awkward position. It cannot condemn Vietnam when it is still a practitioner in capital punishment, as well as the loudest proponent of drug prohibition internationally, too. As is to be expected, the White House has been silent on the matter. If the Washington can stomach the totalitarian ethos behind Vietnam’s capital punishment then why can’t it overlook Vietnam’s human right’s record, Hanoi may well argue. Indeed, the moral lecturer on human rights has the mirror turned on it when capital punishment arises.
One might assume, then, that with little international support for capital punishment abolition in Vietnam, the cogs will no doubt continue rotating on the death machine, at least until a true separation between the Nation and the Party, and between the State and the Citizen, takes place.