U.S. spotlights human rights in Vietnam ahead of Obama's visit
by Julia A. Seymour
Posted 5/02/16, 11:00 am
The U.S. State Department has urged Vietnam to release all prisoners of conscience ahead of President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit.
“The promotion of human rights remains a crucial part of U.S. foreign policy and is a key aspect of our ongoing dialogue within the U.S.-Vietnam comprehensive partnership,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said on April 25, as the two countries held the 20th session of their Human Rights Dialogue in Washington.
Obama will visit Vietnam for the first time while traveling to Japan for a summit this month, The Washington Post reported. He will be the third American president in a row to visit the communist South Asian country.
During last week’s “open and candid” meeting in Washington, U.S. officials criticized an uptick in detentions of activists and bloggers. Tom Malinowski, U.S. assistant secretary for democracy, human rights, and labor, said officials “expressed our hope that this would be addressed and that some of the longstanding cases of concern would be resolved.”
Following the December 2015 arrest of human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai, the U.S. State Department called on Vietnam to “release unconditionally all prisoners of conscience,” VOA News reported.
Activists say the growing alliance between the U.S. and Vietnam could improve human rights in the communist nation, if the U.S. remains firm.
“Vietnam wants to have a strong ally against China. It could be a chance for [the promotion of] human rights because … with the opening of the economy in Vietnam, a lot of people can know what happens outside the country, which was not the case before,” Vo Tran Nhat, executive secretary of the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights, told World Watch Monitor.
The Vietnamese government still tightly restricts political speech and religious activity. Some prisoners are religious freedom advocates or members of unsanctioned religious groups. Open Doors ranked Vietnam the 20th most difficult country for Christians in 2015.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s (USCIRF) recent report estimated Vietnam’s prisons hold between 100 and 200 prisoners of conscience, including bloggers, social and political activists, and religious prisoners. More have been sentenced this year.
According to a 2015 report by Freedom House, religious leaders who don’t join a Communist Party-controlled supervisory body or obtain permission for their activities face possible arrest and harassment.
In April, several Catholic parishioners were injured in a clash with police in Quang Binh province, according to a Radio Free Asia (RFA) report. Le Nam Cao, a Catholic priest, told RFA police and soldiers fired bullets near a church and used tear gas and batons on parishioners. The incident came days after David Saperstein, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, visited the country.
Thích Quảng Độ, head of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, just spent his 12th year under de facto house arrest, and Father Nguyễn Văn Lý, a pro-democracy Catholic priest, remains in prison serving an eight-year sentence, according to Amnesty International.
Vietnam remains a “country of particular concern” according to USCIRF, a designation it has earned since 2001.