June 08, 2015

Two months ago, workers at a shoe factory in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, went on strike to protest changes their government had made to the country’s social security law. The strike spread through the city’s industrial zones until around 90,000 workers had joined. What happened next is not what you’d expect in a communist country lacking respect for freedom of association and the right of workers to organize, especially since the strikers sought to change national policy rather than just to improve conditions in a local factory. The police left the strikers alone, and the government agreed to amend the offending law.

Many members of Congress are asking if it is right to include Vietnam in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, given Vietnam’s record on human rights. I understand their wariness. But having spent the past year urging Vietnam to release prisoners of conscience and reform its laws, I believe we now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to advance these goals. The prospect of Vietnamese participation in a completed TPP, which passage of Trade Promotion Authority will advance, offers the best hope of giving the Vietnamese people — whether it is those workers in Ho Chi Minh City, independent bloggers in Hanoi or Christian activists in the country’s northwest highlands — the space to pursue their rights.

I approach this question with no illusions. Vietnam is still a one-party state, with laws that criminalize political dissent. Last month, I visited a Vietnamese Catholic priest, Father Nguyen Van Ly, in the prison where he is serving time for nothing more than advocating democracy. Three days later, police brutally beat an activist, Anh Chi, in Hanoi. I wouldn’t argue that trade with Vietnam will by itself change any of this; Congress has heard such arguments before, with respect to China, for example, and is understandably skeptical.
At the same time, there is a high-stakes debate underway in Vietnam about whether and how to build a more democratic society under the rule of law. That debate is being driven by civil society, including the tens of millions of Vietnamese on Facebook who are speaking freely online about political topics every day. It has also been joined by many within the government who don’t want the changes in their society to leave them behind.

Proponents of change within Vietnam’s government know their country will be more stable and prosperous if it continues to open up. But principled arguments don’t always carry the day. Their most powerful pragmatic argument is that reform is also necessary to secure something everyone in Vietnam, from party hard-liners to democracy activists, say the country needs and wants — a closer economic and security partnership with the United States.

The Obama administration has told Vietnam that such a partnership, including TPP, depends on continued human rights progress. We have not asked for the impossible, for then we’d end up with neither TPP nor improved respect for human rights. We have asked for reasonable but meaningful improvements, consistent with aspirations the Vietnamese themselves have expressed. In this way, we’ve given reformers within the Vietnamese political system leverage to press forward.

Under the spotlight of the TPP negotiations, Vietnam has released prisoners of conscience, bringing the total number down to around 110 from over 160 two years ago. In 2013, Vietnam convicted 61 people for peaceful political expression; thus far in 2015, there has only been one case in which activists were convicted under statutes criminalizing peaceful expression. It has most recently ratified the Convention Against Torture and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and promised to bring its domestic laws — including its penal and criminal procedure codes — into compliance with its international human rights obligations. This will be a long and hard process, which some in the Vietnamese government will resist. But the government has been sharing drafts of new laws with its public and with the United States, inviting our input, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

What’s more, the TPP agreement will include a requirement that Vietnam guarantee freedom of association, by allowing workers like those who went on strike in Ho Chi Minh City to form genuinely independent trade unions. Allowing workers for the first time under their system to organize unions of their own choosing would be a historic breakthrough in a one-party state. TPP will require all countries that join the agreement to conform their laws and practices to fundamental labor rights and principles. Vietnam will have to make the necessary reforms or miss out on the agreement’s benefits.

These developments do not by themselves guarantee full respect for human rights and labor rights in Vietnam but are necessary and significant steps in that direction. Without the chance to join TPP, it’s not likely Vietnam would have taken any of them at all. Passage of TPA, which provides congressional guidance to our negotiators on labor rights and human rights, gives us bargaining power to keep pushing Vietnam for more progress. And if Vietnam then meets the conditions for TPP itself, we will still have leverage, including via its desire for a full lifting of restrictions on the transfer of lethal arms sales, which we have also linked to human rights progress.

It’s hard to see how the failure of TPA would advance any of these goals. The Vietnamese understand our political process and our calendar. They know that approval of a trade pact is less likely in the United States next year. If Congress closes the door to an agreement now, the Vietnamese government will turn its focus to internal political consolidation — with a Communist Party leadership contest coming up in 2016 — rather than on what it will take to improve its relationship with the United States. In this scenario, there would be zero chance of seeing independent unions legalized in Vietnam, less support for the legal reforms we are seeking, and a greater likelihood of a political crackdown. How would this leave us better positioned to gain human rights progress in Vietnam in the next few years?

Members of Congress concerned about human rights in Vietnam are right to maintain a healthy skepticism about its government’s intentions. Congress should keep demanding more progress. But members should also recognize the importance of TPA in sustaining a process that facilitates securing more progress. TPP is not a leap of faith; it is an instrument of leverage. It has already empowered those in Vietnam seeking a more open society, and it enables us to help them as well.

About the Author: Tom Malinowski serves as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

Editor’s Note: This opinion piece originally appeared in Politico Magazine.


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