Vietnam should be returned to a U.S. State Department list of the world’s worst religious freedom offenders, according to a new report by a bipartisan commission which wants improved bilateral relations to be based on “concrete improvements” in Hanoi’s rights record.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a congressional watchdog, said the one-party communist Vietnamese government controls all religious communities, severely restricts and penalizes independent religious practice, and represses individuals and groups viewed as challenging its authority.
The commission also recommended maintaining Burma, North Korea, and China as “countries of particular concern” (CPC) on religious freedom, a designation that can carry economic sanctions unless governments address U.S concerns.
Aside from the three East Asian nations, those already in the so-called CPC blacklist updated annually by the State Department are Eritrea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.
The commission said in its annual report Tuesday that it is recommending to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Vietnam, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Turkmenistan be included in the CPC list this year.
Call to reinstate
The U.S. State Department had included Vietnam in the CPC list from 2004 to 2006 but has since ignored repeated calls by the commission to reinstate the country on the blacklist.
“Vietnam deserves to be listed among the world’s worst violators of religious freedom, and it’s difficult to understand why they are not. The facts clearly speak for themselves,” said Scott Flipse, Deputy Director of the USCIRF.
In 2011, Vietnam continued to imprison and detain individuals for religious activity and advocacy for religious freedom, the commission said, adding that independent religious activity remains illegal while legal protections for government-approved religious organizations are vague.
New converts to ethnic-minority Protestantism and members of at least one Buddhist community faced discrimination, intimidation, and pressure to renounce their faith, it said.
“Vietnam is one of our new best friends in Asia and there are opportunities to cooperate on trade and security issues, but Hanoi should not be rewarded without concrete progress on human rights and religious freedom,” Flipse said.
“The U.S. must condition progress in the relationship until there are concrete improvements in religious freedom and related rights.”
USCIRF said that even though a nominally civilian government took power in Burma and implemented several political reforms in recent months, religious abuses have lingered.
“Despite changes in other areas, religious freedom conditions have not improved in Burma this year,” Flipse said.
Religious groups, particularly ethnic minority Christians and Muslims and Buddhist monks suspected of engaging in anti-government activity, faced surveillance, arrest, severe restrictions on worship, and targeted violence in Burma, the report said.
Many monks who participated in peaceful democracy demonstrations in 2007 remain in prison, the group said, and a ban on independent Protestant house church activities remains.
“Burma should not be rewarded for actions it has yet to take, and targeted sanctions should remain until the Rohingya Muslims are free from discrimination, all Buddhist monks are freed unconditionally, and Christians are no longer targets in the Burmese militaries ongoing war with ethnic minorities,” Flipse said.
The Chinese government routinely violated freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief this year, ignoring its international obligations to protect these rights, USCIRF reported.
“Religious freedom continues to be a thorny bilateral issue” between the U.S. and China, Flipse said.
“The [ruling Chinese] Communist Party is getting the message that religion will not disappear, but they still have to decide how to deal with groups that resist government control and oversight—do they accommodate or repress. Too often they repress brutally with predicable results,” he said.
Religious groups and individuals considered to threaten national security or social harmony, or whose practices are deemed cult-like, faced severe restrictions, harassment, detention, imprisonment, and other abuses, the report said, pointing specifically to conditions for Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims.
China also detained hundreds of unregistered Protestants and Catholics in 2011, while adherents of the spiritual Falun Gong sect were tortured and mistreated in detention. Attorneys representing religious groups were also targeted by authorities.
“The U.S. must attempt a ‘whole of government’ approach to human rights with China,” Flipse said.
“Human rights discussions should not be cordoned off to an annual human rights dialogue, but connected to every part of the bilateral relationship.”
Following the December death of leader Kim Jong Il and the succession of his son Kim Jong Un, USCIRF said, North Korea remained one of the world’s most repressive regimes last year, with a “deplorable human rights and religious freedom record.”
The group cited continued reports of discrimination and harassment of both authorized and unauthorized religious activity in 2011, as well as the arrest, torture, and possible execution of those conducting clandestine religious activity.
It said asylum-seekers repatriated from China routinely faced mistreatment and imprisonment, particularly those suspected of engaging in religious activities, having religious affiliations, or possessing religious literature.
Laos remained on the USCIRF watch list for 2012 based on “serious religious freedom abuses” which, the commission said, continued during the past year.
It said that while religious freedom conditions have improved for the majority Buddhist groups and for Christians, Muslims, and Baha’is living in urban areas, the government restricted religious practices through its legal codes, and religious rights abuses continued in some rural areas.
“Provincial authorities continue to see the growth of Protestantism among ethnic communities as a security threat, despite some improvements elsewhere in Laos,” Flipse said.
USCIRF documented violations by rural officials against Protestants including detentions, surveillance, harassment, property confiscations, forced relocations, and forced renunciations of faith.
“Training Lao officials to protect human rights and urging them to stop violence and intimidation against ethnic minority Protestants should be job one at the U.S. Embassy in Laos,” he said.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.