When the U.S. agreed to sign the U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership agreement in July 2013, it betrayed an unwillingness to denounce Vietnam’s long record of human rights abuses. In effect, the agreement says that each country will respect “each other’s political systems, independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.” The agreement came after a previous visit of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Hanoi in 2012, where she met with Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) chief Phu Trong. And more recently, in October of 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh to announce an end to a longstanding lethal arms embargo. America is trying to strengthen the country’s maritime security standing, especially given Chinese activity in the South China Sea. “Easing the lethal arms ban on Vietnam for the purpose of maritime security will strengthen our defense cooperation in ways that benefit both countries,” Senator John McCain told media late last year.
These overtures of cooperation and support send a clear signal to CPV officials: America is willing to deal with the Vietnamese regime as it is.
But it’s worth asking in the midst of all this warm feeling whether or not Vietnam’s “political system” (read: communist dictatorship) is worthy of American respect. Numerous human rights organizations have expressed reservations. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have serious criticisms of Vietnam’s repressive censorship and civil disobedience laws, criticizing the country’s tight internet control, jailing of journalists, and extensive public corruption. John Sifton of HRW claimed Vietnam hadn’t “earned” the good treatment it was being offered by America. Even the U.S. Department of State, in a recent global report on human rights, acknowledged that the country remains an “authoritarian state ruled by a single party,” guilty of arbitrary violence, “politically motivated disappearance[s],” torture, state control of media, and several other systemic political/legal deficiencies. Vietnam’s Penal Code allows for such lax interpretations that almost any act can be catalogued as an offense against the country’s “unity policy,” therefore granting the government nearly unlimited discretion to pursue politically motivated investigations and arrests.
For example, Article 88 criminalizes whatever the government deems “slanderous and libelous information against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” Such was the justification used to arrest and harass the Christian activist and lawyer Nguyen Van Dai for the past eight years.
According to Amnesty International’s State of the World report for 2014-2015,
“at least 60 prisoners of conscience remained imprisoned [in Vietnam]. They were convicted after unfair trials and included peaceful bloggers, labor and land rights activists, political activists, religious followers and advocates for human rights and social justice. In addition, at least eighteen bloggers and activists were tried and sentenced in six trials to between 15 months’ and three years’ imprisonment under Article 258 of the Penal Code for ‘abusing democratic freedoms to infringe on the interests of the state.’”
And the photographs in the Human Rights Watch’s report showing injuries sustained by Vietnamese activists or alleged subversives speak for themselves. Spanning a four-year period from August 2010 to July 2014, the HRW report examines twenty-eight deaths in police custody as well as over twenty cases of beating and excessive police brutality, including cases against children. These crimes suggest the lengths the CPV regime will go to to in order to quash any dissent, whether violent or peaceful, legal or illegal. But stable regimes confident in their political legitimacy do not act this way. And is this the sort of regime that America now wants to support and arm, without any real guarantee of reform in return?
The Vietnamese Ambassador to the U.S. has publicly denied these atrocities, even when questioned directly by a dissident. In his view Vietnam is entitled to receive full support from the U.S., including a full and unconditional end to the military embargo. Some American officials, like Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius, have tried to preempt such talk, demanding “demonstrable progress” on human rights before further significant concessions on trade and defense, for instance. But as the U.S. tries to capitalize on Vietnam’s fear of Chinese military expansionism in the South China Sea, making an effort to court Vietnam as its newest ally in the region, it’s important that legitimate humanitarian concerns don’t get sacrificed for the sake of geo-political manuevering. The 2013 Comprehensive Partnership, which pledged lethal maritime weapons and millions of dollars worth of new trade to Vietnam but merely “urged” progress on political and legal reform, does not inspire confidence in this regard. Real reform will require, to start, an end to the Communist Party of Vietnam’s monopoly on power.