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When President Barack Obama stepped to the podium in Hanoi in May to end a half-century arms embargo against Vietnam, more than opening the spigot to a cache of sophisticated American-made weapons was at stake.
The president showed, as he has in other parts of the world, his “pivot” to Asia is a pivot away from human rights. Far from a passive move—simply overlooking in favor of economic and other interests China’s gulags, Burma’s camps, or Vietnam’s disappeared dissidents—Obama overruled even allied human rights advocates.
It’s a message not lost on the authoritarians in Southeast Asia, the Islamic terrorists of the Middle East, or the despots in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia who drink at the American taxpayers’ trough while shackling freethinkers and devout believers.
“President Obama might have just given up one of the few remaining leverages that the United States has,” said Nguyen Dinh Thang, president of Boat People SOS and an escapee of the Communist takeover of Vietnam in 1975.
Nguyen called Obama’s action a “regrettable and premature decision,” pointing out Vietnam has made no significant steps toward promoting individual and religious freedom since the start of talks toward loosening U.S. restrictions. It has failed to revise and pass a draft law on religion or association, keeping in place instead a 2004 ordinance so restrictive on religious communities it’s faced widespread condemnation.
Not having access to one door of many bathrooms |is hard to compare to languishing in a prison cell in wrist shackles.
This didn’t faze Obama. “What we do not have is a ban that’s based on an ideological division between our two countries,” he said in Hanoi, highlighting that “both sides have established a level of trust and cooperation.”
After a question about human rights from a reporter, Obama acknowledged, “we still have differences.” Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang’s follow-up to the same question was more telling: By expanding “dialogue,” he said, “we can narrow the gap in understanding.” In other words, the issue isn’t Vietnam’s record on human rights but America’s coming to terms with it.
Vietnam’s record is unequivocally bad. Since 2001 the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has ranked it a Tier 1 violator of religious freedom. The State Department also condemns Vietnam in its annual human rights reports, together with a broad coalition among the human rights community. Led by Freedom House, 27 organizations issued a “joint statement of concern” last November, saying, “Vietnam’s draft Law on Belief and Religion is inconsistent with the right to freedom of religion or belief.” Human Rights Watch, too, issued a report last year focusing on persecution of Vietnam’s Montagnard Christians to show how Vietnamese government control over religion has increased, not decreased, with Obama-led U.S. engagement.
These are hardly conservative factions or far-right zealots the president chose to ignore. His jettison of human rights in Vietnam highlights a wider trend, and at least two deeper concerns.
One, we’ve heard how the president has centered policymaking in the White House, overriding even his own bureaucracy. American taxpayers should have a say in this, paying for vast bureaus to monitor human rights to no avail. Lawmakers and civil groups need to be more active than ever on this front, as it’s unlikely to change (unless for the worse) under a Clinton or Trump administration.
Two, human rights once were principally the domain of Democrats. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and President Jimmy Carter elevated human rights above the geopolitical pragmatism of the Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon years. Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush extended that understanding. But under Obama and with increasing and widespread support of Democrats, once-fringe groups—gays, lesbians, and transgendered—with dubious claims to disenfranchisement have overtaken the human rights agenda.
Not having access to one door of many bathrooms is hard to compare to languishing in a prison cell in wrist shackles, or being taken from one’s family for years. In the Obama era, if a cause can’t be hashtagged #LGBT, it can be thrown under the bus. For Vietnam’s hundreds of political and religious dissidents, that disregard is a matter of life and death.