Demand for Rights Ahead of Trade

A petition calls on the U.S. government to keep human rights a priority in relations with Vietnam.
2012-02-22
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police-305.jpg
A policeman tries to stop a journalist from taking photos outside an activist's trial in Ho Chi Minh City, Aug. 10, 2011.
AFP

More than 60,000 Vietnamese-Americans have petitioned U.S. President Barack Obama ahead of a policy review on trade with Vietnam, calling on his administration to place the safeguarding of human rights above any decision to expand trade with the communist Southeast Asian nation.

The petition, launched on Feb. 8 by the California-based Saigon Broadcasting Television Network (SBTN), calls on the Obama administration to seek the immediate and unconditional release of some 600 political prisoners as part of trade negotiations with Vietnam.

The U.S. Trade Representative, which reports directly to the President, is considering Vietnam's efforts to expand trade with the U.S. through the Trans-Pacific Partnership and gain preferential tariffs on goods exported to the U.S.

Boat People SOS (BPSOS), a U.S.-based non-profit which assists Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans, in a statement issued Tuesday called on all U.S. residents to sign the petition in an effort to persuade the Obama administration not to decouple the issue of human rights from that of trade with Vietnam.

"Following the recent reforms in Burma, Vietnam has become the worst violator of human rights in Southeast Asia; the U.S. and the world should shine the spotlight on its increasingly repressive regime," said Nguyen Dinh Thang, Executive Director of BPSOS.

SBTN, BPSOS and several other Vietnamese-American community organizations have set up stations in cities around the U.S. to assist community members faced with difficulties using the Internet.

A delegation of some 200 Vietnamese-Americans with representatives from all 50 U.S. states plans to present a hard copy of the petition to the White House on March 5, BPSOS said in its statement.

On the following day, nearly 400 Vietnamese-Americans will meet with members of Congress or their staff to support the Vietnam Human Rights Act, the statement said.

State of trade

Vietnam is currently the 30th largest trading partner with the U.S. with some U.S. $18.6 billion chalked up in two-way trade in 2010, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

The U.S. goods trade deficit with Vietnam was U.S. $11.2 billion that year.

And despite differences on issues of human rights, the U.S. has been actively courting Vietnam in recent months in an effort to counter aggressive territorial claims and economic influence by China in Southeast Asia.

Last September, the U.S. State Department did not include Vietnam in its annual "Countries of Particular Concern" (CPC) blacklist of top violators of religious freedom, as demanded by rights groups.

Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner indicated that the situation in Vietnam, which was on the CPC blacklist from 2004 to 2006, would continue to be monitored.

The independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a congressional watchdog, had asked President Barack Obama's administration to reinstate Vietnam on the blacklist, saying the communist government there severely restricts religious practice and "brutally" represses those who challenge its authority.

The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has accused Vietnam of mounting a sophisticated and sustained attack on online dissent that includes detaining and intimidating anti-government bloggers.

Reporters Without Borders ranked Vietnam 165th out of 178 countries on its press freedom index and listed the country as an “Enemy of the Internet” in a report issued in March last year.

Reported by Joshua Lipes.