The U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday voted down an attempt by lawmakers to deny Vietnam normal trading relations with the United States. Debate over the measure underscored continuing sensitivity in Congress to human rights problems in Vietnam, but also support for the evolving U.S.-Vietnam trade relationship.
The United States and Vietnam signed a bilateral trade agreement two years ago, and the agreement took effect last December after being approved by Congress.
However, many lawmakers remain sharply critical of what they call continuing widespread human rights violations and attempts by Hanoi to suppress dissent.
Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, a noted congressional critic of Vietnam's government, introduced a resolution in June to deny President Bush's authority to waive the Jackson-Vanik amendment.
Originally applied to the former Soviet Union, the 1974 law denies unconditional normal trade relations to countries that restrict freedom of emigration. But the president has the authority to waive provisions of the law. Vietnam has received annual waivers since 1998, making it eligible for credit and investment benefits.
Rep. Rohrabacher (R-California) and others said Vietnam should no longer receive waivers, and pointed to what they said are increasing instances of human rights violations in Vietnam.
"Let's see something happening, rather than just talk, before we normalize relations with them," he said. "Only this will allow the Vietnamese people to enjoy some prosperity, some peace and some liberty. But they have been denied this by the regime that holds them in its grip."
Echoing Mr. Rohrabacher was Democratic congresswoman Loretta Sanchez of California, who represents a heavily-Vietnamese constituency in California. She says the Vietnamese government is not doing enough to enable emigration.
"The fact of the matter is that Vietnam is not doing a good job to help us with emigration, with visas, with family visits," she said. "This vote is about whether they are helping us to bring families together and they're not, they're not doing a good job."
But opponents said that even with problems in Vietnam's human rights record, extending Vietnam's waiver under Jackson-Vanik is necessary. "Failure to extend the waiver so soon after the U.S.-Vietnam bilateral trade agreement entered into force would send terribly mixed diplomatic signals and would undermine the economic and political reforms now gaining momentum in Vietnam," said Rep. Philip Crane, (R-Illinois).
Others said engagement with Vietnam is the best way in the long-run to promote change. "Vietnam is not there yet, but Vietnam is moving in the right direction. Let's not turn the clock back on Vietnam," said Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Oregon). Rep. Earl Blumenauer, also of Oregon, agreed. "Yes, the human rights record is a dark spot. But revoking normal trade relations with Vietnam is not going to accelerate progress," he said.
The congressional debate took place as one human rights groups sought to draw attention to continuing human rights problems in Vietnam.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalist said a prominent writer, Nguyen Vu Binh, was detained and interrogated by authorities, in what the CPJ called escalating harassment of dissidents and writers in the country.
A Vietnamese government spokesman denied the writer was detained or arrested.