Vietnam, The South China Sea, and Human Rights

VIETNAM’S armed forces have looked busy these past few months. High above Danang, a city half-way down the country’s long eastern coast that hosted American troops during the Vietnam war, military planes have been tearing about on training missions. Farther south, two brand-new submarines ply waters near the Cam Ranh Bay naval base once used by the Americans. The displays look like a rejoinder to China’s recent assertiveness in the South China Sea.

The trouble started in May, when a Chinese state-owned energy company parked a large oil rig within Vietnam’s claimed exclusive economic zone, near the Paracel islands, which Vietnam and China contest. Vietnam sent a fleet of fishing boats to confront the rig’s flotilla of Chinese patrol boats. Vessels were rammed, and it was remarkable no one was killed. But back on land in Vietnam, the stand-off led to anti-Chinese protests and factory riots in which at least four people were killed. In mid-July the rig was towed back to near China’s Hainan island, but many Vietnamese fear it will return when the hurricane season is over.

Since the rig’s departure, the leaders of the Communist Party of Vietnam have tried to repair bruised relations with their mighty neighbour to the north. But they are also seeking support from other powers. In August senior officials from India, Japan and America all visited Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi.

On October 2nd Vietnam’s foreign minister, Pham Binh Minh, called on John Kerry. The American secretary of state told Mr Minh that the United States would partially ease its long-standing ban on sales of weapons to Vietnam. The embargo, in place since 1984, has persisted even as ties have warmed—Vietnam’s record on human rights, after all, is dismal.

Vietnam’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh (left) and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry

The partial easing of the embargo looks largely symbolic. Nine-tenths of Vietnam’s arms purchases are from Russia, according to IHS Jane’s, a consulting firm. But it may allow Vietnam to buy armed patrol boats, second-hand American spy planes and spare parts for ancient military helicopters, which were captured from the Americans during the war and which it wants to refurbish. The desire seems to be to improve surveillance at sea.

America’s easing of the embargo was not a complete surprise. It has gradually improved ties with Vietnam since the mid-1990s. The unlikely friends signed a bilateral trade deal in 2001. They are partners in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade negotiation involving a dozen Pacific countries (though not China). And American energy firms are eager to supply equipment for a planned programme of civilian nuclear reactors.

An American diplomat says that Vietnam has made some progress in terms of its human-rights record, including the release this year of 11 prisoners of conscience. But a full lifting of the lethal-arms embargo, the diplomat says, would depend on “additional progress”. That may be some way off. Yet Tuong Vu, a Vietnam expert at the University of Oregon, says the American shift is a “clear case” of strategic interests trumping human rights. Many dissidents remain behind bars, and the one-party state continues to arrest its critics under worryingly vague national-security laws.

Cu Huy Ha Vu, one of the political prisoners who was recently freed, is a Sorbonne-educated lawyer who was jailed in 2011 for, among other crimes, calling for multiparty government. After his release, Mr Ha Vu, the son of a revolutionary poet, flew directly to Washington, DC. He says he would one day like to see both a democratic Vietnam and a military alliance with America against Chinese expansionism. But, he adds, selling spy planes today, amid continuing domestic repression, only prolongs the regime’s survival.


By John Sifton
The Diplomat
Human Rights Watch

The United States government made a mistake this month in relaxing a ban on lethal arms sales and transfers to Vietnam — a non-democratic, one-party state with an abysmal human rights record. The U.S. move, announced on October 2 as Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh was visiting Washington, undermines courageous activists in Vietnam and squanders important leverage that might have been used to encourage more reform.

U.S. officials claim that Vietnam is making small but significant progress on human rights, emphasizing recent releases of political prisoners. But most of the moves they cite are minor, and one of the most well-known prisoners released this year, a lawyer named Dr. Cu Huy Ha Vu, was not released but rather paroled into exile in the United States.

Indeed, the number of political prisoner detainees has increased in recent years, and today more than 150 dissidents are in detention. With the latest releases, the most one can say is that the Vietnamese government is operating a revolving door in which old political prisoners are replaced by new ones. And while the population in detention may ebb and flow, an alarming trend is now on the rise: the use of thugs to attack and intimidate critics.

In grading Vietnam’s reform, the Obama administration should analyze more than a head count of those detained and released, and consider contextual questions. If Vietnam is really serious about reining in persecution of peaceful critics, then why did its courts convict three activists in August (Bui Thi Minh Hang, Nguyen Thi Thuy Quynh, and Nguyen Van Minh) for “obstructing traffic” during a protest and sentence them to three years in prison? Why did the government arrest the prominent blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh (Anh Ba Sam) in May? Why did Vietnam convict the blogger Pham Viet Dao in March? And why have the authorities convicted almost ten ethnic Montagnards at various points through the year, for supposed crimes against the state?

The larger question about Vietnam is whether the government really demonstrated that it is serious about making systematic changes to allow its citizens greater freedoms. Has Hanoi taken any meaningful steps or shown any real willingness to undertake legal reforms to remove penal code provisions criminalizing political speech? Have Vietnamese leaders taken any meaningful steps or shown any real willingness to undertake legal reforms to allow independent trade unions? Has Vietnam taken any meaningful steps or shown any real willingness to deregulate and decriminalize independent religious activity, or stop persecution of religious minorities? The answer to each of these questions is no.

Unfortunately, the decision to relax the lethal arms ban has already been made. It is not too late, however, to use remaining leverage to achieve change. Given the absence of real reform to date, and the major steps that remain to be taken, the U.S. should communicate to Hanoi that it expects much more before the ban will be lifted further.

The United States should now tell Vietnam that future transfers and sales beyond maritime assistance will only occur if Vietnam releases a substantial number of political prisoners; takes more rigorous steps on issues like religious liberty, torture, and labor rights; and makes formal moves to repeal political crimes from its penal code, like Article 87 of the penal code, criminalizing the act of “undermining the unity policy,” and Article 258 “abusing democratic freedoms” to “infringe upon the interests of the State.”

The U.S. government can and should make these points clear in talks later this year in Hanoi, when Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is set to visit. These messages could also be enhanced if coordinated with messages from the U.S. Trade Representative (which is negotiating with Vietnam in the context of the Trans-Pacific Partnership) that Vietnam cannot expect to join the trade pact unless it undertakes legal reforms to allow independent trade unions.

It is not too late to salvage U.S. leverage in the wake of the premature decision of October 2 to relax the lethal arms ban. For the sake of Vietnam’s brave dissidents, the U.S. should try to drive a harder bargain.

John Sifton is the Asia Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch. Follow on Twitter at @johnsifton.



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