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President Biden Should Not Overlook Vietnam’s Rights Crisis

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President Biden Should Not Overlook Vietnam’s Rights Crisis

Progress on shared objectives like climate mitigation will be impossible without measures to address the human rights failures of both Vietnam and the U.S.

President Biden Should Not Overlook Vietnam’s Rights Crisis

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, greets Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh during a bilateral meeting Friday, May 13, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

Credit: Jose Luis Magana/Pool Photo via AP

U.S. President Joe Biden will travel to Hanoi on September 10 to meet with Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) and other senior leaders. While in Vietnam, Biden and his hosts are expected to sign a Strategic Partnership agreement elevating the U.S.-Vietnam relationship. The White House hopes to advance several priorities by establishing closer ties: the growth of a technology-focused Vietnamese economy, expanded education exchanges, and mitigation of the climate crisis among them. But substantive progress on these shared objectives will be impossible without systemic reforms that address the human rights failures of both administrations.

The Vietnam government’s criminalization of free expression is antithetical both to the purported values of the Biden administration and to supporting climate activism and labor organizing. Under the CPV, human rights defenders, activists, journalists, lawyers, religious practitioners, and even social media users face arbitrary arrests and detention, unjust prosecutions, and other forms of harassment and intimidation. Articles 117 and 331 of the Criminal Code, which respectively criminalize “making, storing, distributing or disseminating information, documents and items against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” and “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe on the interests of the State,” violate international human rights standards.

Political prisoners in Vietnam are often subjected to torture and ill-treatment: Trinh Ba Tu, a land rights activist sentenced to eight years in prison, was beaten and shackled for 10 days in September 2022 and Nguyen Van Duc Do, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison, was reportedly tortured and held in solitary confinement for over 300 days. In cases of particular concern, four prisoners suffering deteriorating health conditions – journalists Le Huu Minh Tuan, Nguyen Tuong Thuy, and Pham Chi Dung, and activist Tran Bang – have been denied access to proper medical treatment.

The Vietnamese government’s targeting and abuse of activists also threatens the civil society leaders most critical in addressing the climate crisis. In recent years, the Vietnamese government has weaponized tax laws and NGO regulations to silence environmental leaders. The arrests of five climate leaders in the last two years, including environmental lawyer Dang Dinh Bach and the Obama Foundation’s fellow Hoang Thi Minh Hong, raise grave concerns about the Vietnamese government’s increasing repression and its consequences both for detained activists and for Vietnam’s seriousness in addressing environmental threats. The systemic abuse of laws and the continued practice of detaining activists and human rights defenders and subjecting them to ill-treatment undermines the Vietnamese government’s credibility as a climate partner.

The Biden administration, meanwhile, has its own credibility issues on climate. The U.S. continues to expand its fossil fuel production, despite critical rises in average global temperatures that demand the phasing out of fossil fuels. The most devastating impacts of the climate crisis will be borne by countries least able to finance climate mitigation, yet President Biden’s administration has continued to approve permits for fossil fuel drilling at rates exceeding his predecessor.

The U.S. must be prepared to meet funding levels necessary to deliver just climate solutions and ensure global climate resilience. The federal spending bill for 2023 includes only $1 billion of President Biden’s pledge of more than $11 billion to support countries develop their climate resilience. The failure of wealthier countries such as the U.S. to meet their financial pledges forces lower income countries to bear the risks of the climate crisis while also managing an increase in the rate of extreme poverty. Delaying payments as the crisis accelerates will jeopardize the safety and health of people in lower income countries that require donors and wealthier governments to mobilize more than $1 trillion by 2030.

If the elevated partnership between the U.S. and Vietnam is to deliver benefits to the people of both countries – not merely to the people who serve in their governments – both administrations must undertake systemic reforms that entrench human rights protections.