U.S. lawmakers and rights activists called on President Barack Obama’s administration on Thursday to pressure Vietnam to rein in abuses against bloggers, religious followers, land rights activists, and other government critics on the eve of a bilateral human rights dialogue.
Pointing out that this year Vietnam could end up jailing the biggest number of dissidents in three years, they asked the U.S. State Department to press the communist leadership in Hanoi to curb its “backsliding” on human rights at the annual talks on Friday.
The Congressmen and rights campaigners made the call at a hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives' global human rights panel ahead of the 17th round of the dialogue in Hanoi.
The dialogue has drawn growing attention since talks scheduled for late last year were postponed over U.S. frustration with Vietnam’s lack of improvement on issues discussed the year before.
Vietnam has convicted and sentenced at least 40 dissidents so far this year, matching the 2012 total, Human Rights Watch’s Asia advocacy director John Sifton told the hearing.
“The fact is that a growing number of dissidents—including religious leaders, bloggers, and politically active people—are being convicted and sent to jail for violations of Vietnam’s authoritarian penal code,” he said.
The 2012 figure represented an increase from the year before, and the trials this year have led to new arrests that will likely see more jailings before the end of this year, he said.
Aside from sending dissidents to public trial, authorities use a policy of “stealth repression” to control unsanctioned religious groups by holding their leaders under house arrest and cutting them off from their followers, Paris-based Vietnam Committee on Human Rights President Vo Van Ai told the hearing.
Ai, who is also a spokesman for the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), said he is concerned the State Department has underestimated the “unabated” sufferings of UBCV Buddhists “in all aspects of their daily lives.”
“Whilst appreciating the State Department’s reports of abuses against the UBCV, we are concerned that they portray but a pale picture of the systematic policy pressures, harassment, and intimidation faced by UBCV Buddhists,” he said.
Ethnic minorities such as the Montagnards, Hmong, Khmer Krom, and Cham are particularly vulnerable to religious persecution, rights groups representatives said.
“The government of Vietnam persecutes all religions across the board, but in particular those who don’t have a voice,” Vietnamese-American former lawmaker Anh Joseph Cao said.
Religious communities are targeted through forced seizure of their land, such as in the case of the 2010 closure of a Catholic cemetery and homes in Con Dau Parish in Da Nang, he said.
Republican Congressman Chris Smith, who chaired the hearing, called for Vietnam to be put back on the State Department’s annul blacklist of top violators of religious freedom.
He said Vietnam continues to be “among the worst violators of religious freedom in the world,” despite being taken off the list of “Countries of Particular Concern,” a designation that could result in sanctions.
Smith also called for a “critical examination” of the State Department’s recent upgrading of Vietnam in an annual report on human trafficking from “Tier 2 Watch List” to “Tier 2” status.
More attention should be paid to labor and human trafficking abuses taking place “with the government’s complicity,” he said.
Lawmakers and activists said any discussions on human rights at Friday’s dialogue should be backed up with set time frames and benchmarks for improvement.
Ai said that without concrete measures to back up the assertions, Vietnamese authorities were able to use the dialogue as an empty display of respect for human rights.
“They use the human rights dialogue as a shield,” he said.
The State Department said in a statement Thursday that human rights are a “key component” of U.S. relations with Vietnam and that officials are looking forward to a “frank, results-based discussion.”