Wednesday, May 11
Thank you. It’s a privilege and honor to be with you today. I wish to offer a special thanks to Dr. Quan who helped to make this day possible and continues to be a leader in advocating for the human rights of the Vietnamese people. Thanks also to the members of Congress and their staff who continue to follow events in Vietnam closely and are persistent in urging greater respect for human rights.
This gathering is taking place at a very timely and important moment in the history of the U.S. relationship with Vietnam. As the White House announced yesterday, President Obama will be visiting Vietnam a couple of weeks from now – only the third time that a U.S. President has visited Vietnam since the normalization of relations twenty years ago. The visit presents significant opportunities to strengthen our relationship in various ways. One of those ways is on human rights, where there are still significant challenges.
I can assure you that one of the central points the President will reiterate to the Government of Vietnam during the visit will be the importance of improving Vietnam’s respect for human rights if the U.S.-Vietnam is to be deepened. As the White House press release notes, the President also will meet with members of civil society, the Young Southeast Asian Leadership Initiative, entrepreneurs, and the business community to demonstrate the importance of engaging with all sectors of Vietnamese society.
In advance of the President’s trip, my boss – Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski – and Assistant Secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Danny Russell held meetings in Vietnam earlier this week. They, too, reinforced the point with senior officials in the Government of Vietnam that if the President’s trip is to be a success, there must be further progress on human rights. Assistant Secretary Malinowski also held meetings with civil society activists, independent journalists and several of the people who sought to put themselves forward as independent candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections (I should add they were not allowed to do so.) In this regard, I would note that some of the people invited to these meetings were prevented from attending, which is a sign of the continuing human rights challenges in Vietnam.
I would also note that our Deputy Secretary, Tony Blinken, also recently traveled to Vietnam and met with high-level officials of the government where he made the same points on human rights. He, too, spoke with members of civil society, as well as students and faculty at Vietnam National University. In fact, the Deputy Secretary’s speech at the university was broadcast live throughout Vietnam, and if you have not seen or read it, I recommend it to you. I think it lays out very clearly our hopes for Vietnam, including how we would like to enhance our relationship and what that would take, including progress on human rights.
Just several weeks ago we held the 20th U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue, led by Assistant Secretary Malinowski and in which senior officials from other relevant U.S. agencies participated. At the Dialogue we had candid conversations with the Vietnamese delegation about our various human rights concerns and the need for additional progress in specific areas. The second day of the dialogue included meetings on Capitol Hill, a visit to the Newseum, and a trip to Providence Hospital, which is run by the Catholic Church, to show how religious organizations can make helpful contributions in addressing important social needs beyond providing individuals with the opportunity to practice their beliefs.
During the dialogue, among other things, we called for the release of all political prisoners and the imposition of a moratorium on the arrest of persons for exercising their basic rights. We discussed the importance of legal reform, particularly as to those broad provisions in current law that can be abused by authorities. The coming year is a very important in terms of legal reform, as the Vietnamese legislature will be considering new laws on demonstrations, association and religion or belief. We have been consistently urging the government to use these reforms to bring Vietnamese law into conformity with the robust human rights provisions in Vietnam’s constitution as well as its international human rights obligations and commitments.
We also discussed the need for greater respect for freedom of expression, the importance of promoting the rights of disabled and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex persons, labor rights, and the need for reform of the laws and policies that restrict the right to practice one’s religion.
At the same time as we highlight the shortcomings on human rights in Vietnam, it is important to recognize the modest progress the government has made in some areas, particularly in working to protect the rights of persons with disabilities and the rights of LGBTI persons. We also note that the government of Vietnam has released some prisoners of conscience early and that some legal reforms have been positive, such as codifying the right to not self-incriminate into their new Criminal Procedure Code. We are also hopeful about Vietnam’s commitment to allow independent trade union activity as part of the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement and will be working hard to facilitate ratification of the TPP here in the U.S. as well as in Vietnam.
But despite these positive developments, we remain very concerned about the recent uptick in arrests and convictions of bloggers and rights advocates under vague Penal Code articles. Just in the first months of 2016, seven people, peaceful activists, bloggers, and anti-corruption advocates, have been convicted and sentenced to prison, including the well-known blogger Nguyen HuuVinh, also known as An Ba Sam. We also continue to be deeply troubled by the arrest and ongoing detention of internationally respected and recognized human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai, who has been held incommunicado since December. We call on the Government of Vietnam to release these and other political prisoners unconditionally.
In sum, as we seek to build a stronger relationship with Vietnam, let me reassure you that human rights remains at the very top of our agenda.
We greatly appreciate your efforts to continue to raise awareness of these issues and we will continue to work with you and a wide range of partners to advocate for greater respect for universal rights in Vietnam.
Thank you again for the opportunity to address you today and we look forward to our ongoing partnership with you.