News / Asia

US Steps Up Pressure on Vietnam Over Human Rights

US Senator John McCain (R) speaks next to US Senator Joseph Lieberman (on left) at a press conference in Hanoi on January 19, 2012.
US Senator John McCain (R) speaks next to US Senator Joseph Lieberman (on left) at a press conference in Hanoi on January 19, 2012.
Ron Corben

A report by Human Rights Watch says Vietnam’s government has intensified repression against activists and dissidents over the past year.  The U.S.-based group is calling for the immediate release of political prisoners in Vietnam. The call came as senior U.S. congressmen on a visit to Southeast Asia stepped up pressure on Vietnam's government to improve its rights record, saying it is a condition for expanded bilateral military ties with the United States.

The Human Rights Watch global report, released Sunday, says Vietnam had carried out a “systematic crackdown” that in 2011 led to the prosecution of over 30 activists, who were charged under what the report calls “vaguely-worded articles” in Vietnam’s penal code and sentenced to prison.

The report says bloggers, writers, human rights defenders, land rights activists, religious and other groups were targeted by Vietnamese authorities and faced harassment, intimidation, arrest, torture and imprisonment.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, says the arrests breach Vietnam’s stance on civil and political rights.

“At least 33 people that we know of in prison this year for basically either freedom of expression, association or peaceful assembly.  Things ranging from holding up a placard or doing blogs on the net.  All these things that should be protected in Vietnam, because people forget that it’s a fact that Vietnam has ratified the international covenant on civil and political rights," he said.

Among those recently arrested was a female activist, Bui Thi Minh Hang, who was sentenced to two years in a re-education camp.

Robertson called for the United States government to maintain pressure on Vietnam's government to release the activists.

The Human Rights Watch report came a day after a U.S. delegation led by senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman warned Vietnam that expanded military ties with the U.S. were dependent on an improvement in Vietnam’s human rights record.

In a weekend briefing, Senator McCain said he made the U.S. position clear during talks with senior Vietnam government officials, and raised U.S. concerns over the deterioration in Vietnam’s human rights performance. “I think it’s also a fact that there has not been progress in human-rights issues; in fact, that there has been some backward movement on (it).  I specifically stated to the Vietnamese that our security relationship will be directly impacted by the human rights issue.  Make no bones about that.  And I think they have a clear understanding of that," he said.

Vietnam has been seeking to expand military ties with the U.S. and included a “wish list” of weaponry in talks with the senators last week.  No details of the list were made available.

Vietnam faces ongoing tensions with the Philippines, Taiwan and especially China over rival claims to resource-rich sections of the South China Sea.

Senator Lieberman said while the U.S. relationship with Vietnam had improved, the country’s human rights record remained a stumbling block. “What’s wrong is the backward movement on human rights. And we were specific; we said that there’s certain weapons systems that the Vietnamese would like to buy from us and we would like to transfer them, these systems to them. But it’s not going to happen unless they improve their human rights record. Practically speaking, Congress will not approve these weapon sales to Vietnam unless there’s an improvement in its human rights in Vietnam," he said.

Carl Thayer, a regional analyst with the University of New South Wales in Australia, says the fact that both President Barack Obama’s administration and the U.S. Congress support linking arms sales to human rights gives added weight to the pressure on Vietnam's government to reform. “So the bottom line conclusion is that the (Obama) administration has a policy of doing arms sales and two leading lights in the Senate are really saying that even if the administration wanted to change it (of linking arms sales with human rights), Congress would stop that.  So the Vietnamese are on notice, quite simply," he said.

In its global report, Human Rights Watch also denounced Vietnam's use of administrative detention and forced labor against so-called social undesirables, including drug addicts.  The rights group says that, as of early 2011, about 40,000 people, including children as young as 12, were being held in 123 detention centers across Vietnam.

It says that detainees who violated the centers' rules were subjected to beatings, electric shocks and being locked in disciplinary rooms without food and water.

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