Rights Dialogue As Relations Improve

The US and Vietnam prepare for annual talks on human rights.

hoangsentenced-305.jpg Pham Minh Hoang is led from the Ho Chi Minh City People's Court House, Aug. 10, 2011.

The United States and Vietnam will hold a 16th round of bilateral talks on human rights Wednesday in Washington, amidst warming ties between the two nations which have sought to limit China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia.

The two-day Human Rights Dialogue will be led by U.S. Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner and Vietnamese Director General Hoang Chi Trung, according to a statement issued by the U.S. State Department on Monday.

“These meetings will offer an opportunity to pursue in-depth and substantive discussions that can produce concrete results aimed at narrowing the differences that remain between the United States and Vietnam in the area of human rights,” the State Department said in the release.

Hanoi’s suppression of political dissent has drawn criticism from Washington over the years.

In August, authorities in Vietnam sentenced French-Vietnamese blogger Pham Minh Hoang to three years in prison and three years under house arrest for “undermining national security,” accusing him of ruining the nation’s image through his critical writings.

The U.S. State Department said it was “dismayed” by the sentence, adding that “no individual should be prosecuted for exercising the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”

“Vietnam’s prosecution of individuals for expressing their views contradicts the government’s commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” the State Department said in a statement at the time.

And in its annual Human Rights Report, released in April this year, the State Department noted that Vietnamese authorities “increased measures to limit citizens' privacy rights and freedom of the press, speech, assembly, movement, and association” in 2010.

It said Vietnamese could not change their government and were prohibited from organizing political opposition movements, while authorities “increased measures to limit citizens' privacy rights and freedom of the press, speech, assembly, movement, and association.”

In September, more than a dozen U.S. lawmakers sent a letter urging the newly-appointed American Ambassador to Vietnam David Shear to address concerns such as rule of law, Internet freedom, and suppression of political dissent in the communist-ruled nation.

In the letter, the Congressmen said that Shear’s appointment comes at “a pivotal time as Vietnam pursues economic gains through its bilateral relations with the U.S. but continues to fail on what the United States regards as a priority: respect for the fundamental human rights of its citizens.”

Warming ties

But 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.

Vietnam and China, as well as the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan, have overlapping claims to parts of the South China Sea, believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits and home to shipping lanes vital to global trade.

The Philippines and Vietnam have said they are alarmed by increasingly belligerent actions by China in the disputed waters.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Hanoi last year to deliver a message of U.S. interest in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and promote peaceful settlement of disputes over islands in the area.

U.S. warships have paid courtesy calls in Vietnam and a civilian manned U.S. naval supply ship left Vietnam in October after being provided with extensive repairs.

And Washington has also recently taken steps to back off of earlier criticism of Hanoi’s rights record.

In 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 this year.

Reported by Joshua Lipes.

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