Obama Turns to Human Rights in Vietnam After Lifting Embargo

What Have We Learned About Obama's Trip to Asia So Far?
  • U.S. president meets in Hanoi with civil society leaders
  • Three activists blocked from meeting, Obama adviser says

A day after saying Vietnam had made enough progress on human rights to merit lifting a decades-old U.S. ban on arms sales, President Barack Obama chided his host country over its record on dealing with dissent and said the government had blocked several activists from meeting with him.

Obama on Tuesday cited the strides Vietnam has made in allowing greater freedom for its citizens, but he said there remained significant areas of concern.

"It’s an indication of the fact that, although there has been some modest progress and it is our hope that through some of the legal reforms that are being drafted and passed there will be more progress, there are still folks who find it very difficult to assemble and organize peacefully around issues that they care deeply about," Obama said in Hanoi following the meeting with a small group of rights activists and dissenters.

Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said the U.S. government had formally expressed concern that at least three of those invited to meet with Obama were prevented from attending and that the administration had also taken steps to make sure those who did visit with the president wouldn’t face retribution.

Secretary of State John Kerry also told reporters later in the day he was disappointed the activists had been blocked from the meeting, while emphasizing that the mere fact the meeting occurred was a sign of progress.

"That meeting today, while it lacked three people that had been invited, and we hoped had been there, was still a remarkably significant meeting because it took place," Kerry said. "And that’s the first time a president of the United States has sat down with civil society in the capital of this country and talked in an open way."

The session was intended as a contrast to the slate of one-on-one meetings with government leaders that Obama held Monday, his first day in the country.

Raising Issues

Obama often uses visits to countries with poor human rights records as an opportunity to raise the topic publicly and privately. He tangled with Cuban President Raul Castro in March in Havana with both countries criticizing the other for their records on rights and equality. Obama took a question about human rights on Monday at a joint press conference with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang, saying the two countries “still have differences.”

Quang said Vietnam has made progress on human rights and pointed to the country’s membership on the United Nations Human Rights Council. Without pledging any changes, he told reporters that “we can narrow the gap in understanding and narrow the differences between the countries, especially on human rights.”

Vietnam has been a leader in Southeast Asia on gay marriage, abolishing the ban on same-sex marriage last year.

Obama used a high-profile speech on Tuesday to drive home his message on human rights to an audience of more than 2,000 people including top government officials and foreign diplomats. The president told that audience that freedom of speech fuels “the innovation that economies need to survive,” while freedom of the press helps “hold officials accountable and builds public confidence that the system works.”

“It is my view that upholding these rights is not a threat to stability, but actually reinforces stability and is the foundation of progress,” he said.

Conditions on Weapons

Obama’s lifting of the arms embargo doesn’t preclude human rights from coming into play if Vietnam requests certain weapons, said Tuong Vu, an associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon. “Obama made clear Vietnam will still have to improve human rights to get any weapon sales approved."

Obama’s visit coincides with a rise in dissent and rare public protests in the country. In recent weeks, Vietnamese have taken to the streets in the thousands over the deaths of millions of fish near Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corp., a unit of Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics Corp., located in central Vietnam. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc ordered an investigation into how the steel plant received approval to pipe waste water directly into the sea.

Dissidents Blocked

Police used force to break up demonstrations on May 8 and were able to ensure no major street protests occurred immediately before Obama arrived Sunday night. Central Ho Chi Minh City was full of security and police barricades, and known dissidents were blocked from leaving their homes.

More than 100 dissidents are detained in Vietnam, according to Human Rights Watch. U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius criticized “harassment and detentions of peaceful human rights advocates” in an e-mailed statement Dec. 29. “This disturbing trend, at this time, threatens to overshadow Vietnam’s progress on human rights in recent years,” he said.

The day before Obama left for Hanoi, the government released Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly, a Roman Catholic priest and dissident who’s spent much of the past two decades in prison and who was on the rights group’s list of political prisoners. 

‘Peaceful Activists’

Amnesty International called on Obama to insist on the release of political prisoners in Vietnam, saying six “peaceful activists” have been arrested in recent days in spite of his visit.

“Even as it faces the glare of global attention with the U.S. president’s visit, the Vietnamese authorities, shamefully, are carrying out their repressive business as usual,” Rafendi Djamin, Amnesty International’s director for South East Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement.

The Communist Party held elections hours before Obama arrived on Sunday. At a time of rising frustration with the one-party political system, it this year approved the lowest number of independent candidates for National Assembly elections in nearly 20 years.

While 162 people initially nominated themselves to stand for parliament, only 11 made it through a short-listing process to the final list of 870 vying for 500 seats. News reports in Vietnam said nearly 100 percent of Vietnamese turned out for the elections.

Union Rights

Obama has said he hopes Vietnam’s membership in the the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact will spur rights improvements. As part of the agreement’s negotiations, Vietnam agreed to allow for independent unions, though it has five years to fully implement the policy.

It’s unclear how Vietnam will facilitate the independent groups, said Le Hong Hiep, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

“What they want to make sure of is that these independent unions focus on the economic well-being of the workers and not be taken advantage of by activists for political purposes,” he said. “That would be a red line and the government would take action.”

Obama later toured the Jade Emperor Pagoda before meeting with Vietnamese entrepreneurs at the DreamPlex, an incubator for startups, where he said that the “engine of entrepreneurship” is the driver of Ho Chi Minh City’s growth.

Next month at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, Obama, who is hosting the event in California, said he will welcome eight leaders from Vietnam to Silicon Valley. “I’m here today because the United States is committed to being a partner as you grow,” Obama told Vietnamese entrepreneurs Tuesday.

During his trip to Vietnam, Obama is highlighting some concessions made by the Communist government. In Ho Chi Minh City, he plans to visit Fulbright University Vietnam, which will be a campus independent of the Vietnamese government. The two countries also announced the U.S. Peace Corps will be allowed to come to the Southeast Asian country, a group long viewed as a “subversive force” that could undermine the nation, Hiep said.

“There have been concessions that will nurture the growth of the civil society gradually,” he said. “I think for now and in the near future, the U.S. may prioritize strategic issues over human rights.”

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