The U.S. State Department expressed “great concern” Tuesday over the deteriorating human rights situation in Vietnam, saying it is studying whether the tightly-governed state should be included in a blacklist of nations suppressing religious freedom.
Describing the situation as “unacceptable,” the department’s human rights chief Michael Posner said Hanoi’s desire to increase engagement with the U.S. is contingent on measurable progress in improving its rights record.
“In Vietnam today, respect for human rights continues to deteriorate, as it has for the past several years,” Posner, who is Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said at a hearing held by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the U.S. Congress in Washington.
“These are issues of great concern to the United States government.”
When asked how Posner would grade Vietnam’s human rights record, the State Department official called it “discouraging and unacceptable.”
“We’ve made it clear to the government of Vietnam that our joint desire to have a closer strategic relationship is dependent on their making substantial progress on human rights,” he said.
“We’re not satisfied that that’s happening and we continue to raise these issues.”
At the hearing, Chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission Congressman Frank Wolf recommended the sacking of U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam David Shear, saying the diplomat had not effectively engaged the country’s dissident community.
“He has not treated this issue seriously … He’s been a failure when it comes to human rights,” Wolf said.
Posner specifically pointed to four areas where the U.S. State Department had raised concerns with the Vietnamese government, including the continued imprisonment of human rights activists and restrictions on the free flow of information.
He also condemned Vietnam’s use of vague legal provisions, which he called “inconsistent with international norms,” and Hanoi’s limiting of religious freedoms.
Posner said the U.S. estimates that Vietnam is holding around 100 prisoners of conscience, calling for their release.
He also pointed to a number of new laws meant to limit the rights of the media.
Specifically, he mentioned decree No. 2, which allows for greater punishment against journalists for publishing material “against the interests of the state,” decree No. 20, which restricts access to television stations, and a draft decree which would place new limits on Internet providers and netizens’ access to Internet content.
Posner also called for the repeal of a number of ambiguous legal codes which he said allow the government to “target citizens at will,” including Article 79, which outlaws activities aimed at “overthrowing the people’s administration,” and Article 88, which outlaws “propaganda against the state.”
He went on to criticize Hanoi’s limiting of religious freedoms, including the harassment of Christian and Buddhist groups, and registration obstacles for religious groups.
“Although Vietnam’s Constitution laws guarantee freedom of religion, these laws are not applied consistently,” he said.
He said that the U.S. State Department is aware that many people in Vietnam, particularly the younger generation, want to share ideas freely and be connected to the rest of the world, and that they desire democracy.
“We support their aspirations and our efforts to publicize the human rights problems there are part of our effort to help them find their voices,” Posner said.
But despite acknowledging major concerns over Vietnam’s rights record, Posner stopped short of pledging anything more than continued dialogue with the one-party Communist nation.
When asked whether the State Department would consider including Vietnam on its list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) on religious freedom, Posner said the U.S. plans to evaluate the country on a continuing basis.
“Our impression is … in terms of religious freedom the situation has not gotten better, but it’s at a sort of steady stage,” he said.
“It is an open process and we can make a judgment at any time … We are looking at it on an ongoing basis.”
A CPC designation can carry economic sanctions unless governments address U.S concerns over their restrictions of religious freedom.
In March, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a congressional watchdog, recommended Vietnam be returned to the State Department list of the world’s worst religious freedom offenders.
The State Department had included Vietnam in the CPC list from 2004 to 2006 but has since ignored repeated calls by the commission to reinstate the country on the blacklist.
Also present at the hearing was Mai Huong Ngo, the wife of Vietnamese-American Nguyen Quoc Quan who was arrested April 17 as he deplaned in Tan Son Nhat airport while “trying to enter Vietnam to instigate a demonstration and undermine celebrations,” according to Vietnamese state media.
Authorities said the member of the banned opposition group Viet Tan planned to disrupt the anniversary of the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, which forced U.S. forces to withdraw at the end of the Vietnam conflict.
Mai Huong Ngo said that in the nearly four weeks since her husband was arrested, the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh city had only been allowed to meet with him once and would not be able to meet with him again until the end of May.
She said that she was worried about his health because he had not brought adequate clothing for Vietnamese weather and had asked the consulate to bring some to him.
Mai Huong Ngo said that she had not been contacted by either U.S. Ambassador Shear or by Vietnamese officials.
She said that she had been sent a message from her husband through the consulate asking her to “stay strong for him and to make sure that the children study hard,” but had not had a chance to speak with him directly.
Mai Huong Ngo said that she had been advised by the consulate not to try to enter Vietnam to visit her husband, lest she also face imprisonment.
She called on U.S. Ambassador Shear and U.S. State Department Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to pressure Vietnam for his immediate and unconditional release.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.