American lawmakers have passed legislation tying U.S. aid to Vietnam to improvements in the protection of human rights in the one-party, Communist state.
The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday approved the Vietnam Human Rights Act of 2012, which would make improvements in human rights a condition for increases in nonhumanitarian aid to the country.
It also adopted a resolution condemning what the House said was Hanoi’s abuse of vague national security laws used to silence dissent.
The legislation still needs passage by the Senate. The House has approved the bill twice in previous sessions, but it has died in the Senate.
The Rights Act, if adopted into law, would prohibit increased U.S. assistance over 2011 levels unless the U.S. President certifies that Hanoi has made significant gains in protecting human rights.
Republican Congressman Chris Smith, who authored the bill, said it is needed because Vietnam remains an “egregious violator” of human rights.
“Religious, political, and ethnic persecution continue and in many cases are increasing, and … Vietnamese officials are still laying out the welcome mat for forced labor and sex traffickers,” Smith said.
“It is imperative that the United States Government send an unequivocal message to the Vietnamese regime that it must end its human rights abuses against its own citizens.”
The bill stipulates that the U.S. must limit nonhumanitarian aid unless Vietnam releases political and religious prisoners and takes steps to protect its citizens’ rights to freedom of assembly, association, and religious expression.
It also provides support to individuals and organizations promoting human rights in Vietnam.
Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, spoke in favor of the bill, noting that Vietnam’s rights violations continue even as its trade with the U.S. grows.
“We should not reward this Communist dictatorship until the government of Vietnam has made substantial progress respecting political freedoms, media freedoms, and religious freedoms,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has repeatedly called on Vietnam to address human rights concerns, although it has also pushed ahead with greater cooperation with Hanoi including in military exchanges.
The U.S. and Vietnam signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement in 2007, and negotiations for Vietnam to join a Trans-Pacific Free Trade Agreement are under way.
Since 2000, the U.S. Agency for International Development has provided at least U.S. $413 million in assistance to Vietnam.
In the 2010 fiscal year, it provided $134 million, more than half of it devoted to improving health condition and for child development. The agency requested $125 million for 2012.
The House resolution calls on the Vietnamese government to stop using vague laws on national security as a pretext to silence dissent.
Vietnam has jailed dozens of journalists and bloggers who spoke out about corruption, under Article 88 of its criminal code, which prohibits “conducting propaganda against the state.
Rights groups say the provision has been used as a “buzz saw” to silence dissent.
Prominent blogger Nguyen Van Hai, also known by his pen name Dieu Cay, remains in detention since last year facing charges under Article 88 for articles he published on his Free Journalists Club website.
Dozens of other dissidents have been detained for associating with the opposition, under Article 79, which prohibits ‘‘carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration.”
The Viet Tan Reform Party, an opposition organization banned in Vietnam that monitors human rights in the country, welcomed the passage of the legislation, saying it shows strong support in the U.S. Congress for democratic reform in Vietnam.
“At this historic moment when countless Vietnamese are openly expressing themselves online, peacefully demonstrating in the streets, and advocating for political change, American lawmakers are showing their solidarity with the people of Vietnam,” the group said in a statement.
Reported by Rachel Vandenbrink.