After a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama that was dogged by protests from Vietnamese exiles and expatriates, the head of Vietnam’s Communist Party said Wednesday that human rights were a top concern of the authoritarian, one-party country.
“Protecting and promoting human rights is [sic] the main objective of our development,” Nguyen Phu Trong, head of the Vietnamese Communist Party and secretary of the Central Military Commission, said at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
“We want to ensure, promote and protect the rights of all people in Vietnam,” he said in response to a question following his speech. But he added that current detainees — which rights groups say includes hundreds of political prisoners — were being held because they had violated the law.
Earlier during his speech, Trong said that Vietnam attached “great importance” to human rights.
“We are making efforts every day to strive for a better and better society for our people,” he said, adding that the U.S. and Vietnam should continue their dialogue to reach common ground on human rights matters.
But Trong also cautioned: “This issue should not be allowed to become an obstacle to our growing bilateral relations.”
Trong’s speech came a day after he met with Obama to discuss several issues, including trade, security and human rights, as a few hundred people gathered outside the White house to demonstrate for freedom of religion and the release of Vietnamese political prisoners.
A joint statement released early Wednesday said both countries pledged their continued support for the promotion and protection of human rights and supported constructive dialogue on the issue.
“They encourage further cooperation to ensure that everyone, including members of vulnerable groups, regardless of their gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation, and including persons with disabilities, enjoy fully their human rights,” said the statement, issued by the White House.
The statement noted that Vietnam is continuing to bring its laws into line with its 2013 constitution — which has a separate section on human rights — and international commitments, including the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
The two countries also pledged to deepen their relations on trade, defense and security, sustainable development and regional issues.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the normalization of relations between the former enemies, as well as the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.
Crucial role of human rights
Viet Tan, a pro-democracy party banned in Vietnam with members inside the country and around the world, said in a statement to RFA that it would be a missed opportunity for the White House to pursue a “comprehensive partnership” with Vietnam without recognizing the crucial role of human rights to sustain such a partnership.
“The challenge for the Obama administration is figuring out how to deepen the current diplomatic relationship — with an unelected regime — while pursuing an agenda that’s in the long-term interests of both the American and Vietnamese people,” the statement said.
Jonathan London, a professor and international expert on Vietnam at the City University of Hong Kong, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that the U.S. must hold Vietnam to its word on human rights.
“Washington needs to see that Vietnam takes certain steps to prove that it will respect their citizens’ human rights as it said they would,” he said. “That will create more potential for their bilateral relationship.”
Vietnam is known for its harsh treatment and detentions of bloggers, democracy activists and religious believers worshipping outside of government control.
It has jailed dozens of bloggers and rights advocates in recent years over their online posts, with rights groups accusing the government of using vague national security provisions against them to silence dissent.
According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, approximately 150 to 200 activists and bloggers are serving prison time in Vietnam simply for exercising their basic rights.
Nine U.S. congressional representatives had sent a letter to Obama on Monday, urging him to hold Vietnam accountable for its human rights violations before pursuing viable economic relations.
The Obama administration is negotiating a 12-country trade pact, known as the Trans-Pacific partnership, which includes Vietnam.
They urged the president to broach the topics of the mistreatment of political and religious prisoners in Vietnam and call on Trong to immediately release prominent citizen journalists and human rights activists, including Ho Duc Hoa, Dang Xuan Dieu, Nguyen Dang Minh Man. Ta Phong Tan, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, Ngo Hao, Tran Thi Thuy, Nguyen Hoang Quoc Hung, pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh and Catholic priest Nguyen Van Ly.
“As the list of detained Vietnamese bloggers and prisoners of conscience gets longer and longer, it is more important than ever that the United States sends a clear message to the Hanoi authorities that respect for human rights is essential for a closer economic and security relationship,” their statement said.
Reported by An Nguyen for RFA’s Vietnamese Service, Paul Eckert and Roseanne Gerin. Translated by Ninh Pham. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.