Statement On Human Rights Concerns In Vietnam
Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs
Statement before Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight Committee on Foreign Affairs
November 6, 2007
Human Rights Concerns in Vietnam
Chairman Delahunt, Ranking Member Rohrabacher, and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for inviting me to testify before the Subcommittee today on the topic of human rights in Vietnam, and on how this important issue affects U.S. relations with the Vietnamese people and their government. Vietnam is a country that is transforming at a rapid pace. The U.S.-Vietnam relationship has expanded in a number of areas. As our ties evolve, the promotion of human rights continues to be one of our highest priorities.
I have had the opportunity to observe Vietnam for nearly two decades, and the changes are dramatic and striking. When I first arrived in Vietnam in 1993, the country was just emerging from over 15 years of doctrinaire Marxism. That period had ruined an already-war damaged economy, impoverished a proud people, and forced thousands into harsh reeducation camps or to flee, often to our shores. The small number of dissidents were nearly all in prison. Diplomatically, Vietnam was largely isolated.
In the late-1980s, Vietnam's leaders recognized that doctrinaire Marxism had failed. They introduced a policy of "doi moi", or renovation, aimed at boosting economic growth. They abandoned the idea of a centrally planned economy and began to introduce market-oriented policies to promote the private sector. They saw they had to integrate with the world economy; attract foreign trade, investment and technology; and reach out to the United States and others.
With the support of Congress, the U.S. government reestablished diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1995. I was in Hanoi at the time, and had the privilege of being among the first officers to work in our new Embassy.
Since then, Vietnam has transformed at a truly impressive pace as a result of its market-oriented reforms. The economy has grown on average over 7 percent annually since 1993 -- the second fastest pace in Asia behind China. Per capita income has gone from $288 in 1993 to $726 in 2006, and continues to increase. Poverty has dropped from 58 percent of the population in 1993 to under 14 percent in 2004. The World Bank has described this as the most significant rate of poverty reduction in short period of any nation in history.
Vietnam and its people are rapidly integrating with the rest of the world. The country is an influential member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an active participant in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, and joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in January 2007. Vietnam will sit on the UN Security Council in January 2008 for a two-year term -- another first. Travel between our two countries also continues to rise -- 75,000 Americans visited Vietnam in 2006 and over 6,000 student visas were issued to Vietnamese in fiscal year 2007, more than any other Southeast Asian country. The Vietnamese-American community has played a central role in expanding the people-to-people network between the U.S. and Vietnam.
As Vietnam has opened to the world, our bilateral relationship has grown into a broad-based engagement that clearly serves U.S. national interests. High-level visits by President Triet to Washington in June this year, and by President Bush to Hanoi last November for the APEC forum meeting, reflect the advances in our relationship. We have made gains on nearly every front, both in the areas where we agree and in our ability to address candidly areas where we differ.
On the economic front, the 2001 U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement (BTA) has pushed our two-way trade to $9.6 billion in 2006 -- a ten-fold increase in five years. U.S. firms have invested over $2.5 billion since 1988, with $639 million of that in 2006 alone. The country is eager for more U.S. investment -- a message broadcast by President Triet during his June visit to the United States. In October, government labor officials from both countries met in Hanoi for the fifth time for our annual Labor Dialogue. Commerce Secretary Gutierrez is in Vietnam this week leading a trade mission of 23 American firms to sign deals and expand our exports.
Cooperation with Vietnam in security areas is also gradually expanding. We are working to help build capacity for peacekeeping and search-and-rescue through International Military Education and Training (IMET) supported programs, and U.S. Navy ships now call at Vietnamese ports. We continue to enjoy strong cooperation from Vietnam on efforts to achieve the fullest possible accounting of American servicemen who lost their lives in the Vietnam conflict. So far, 882 Americans have been identified and repatriated since 1973. In September, as part of a U.S. program, Vietnam replaced the highly-enriched uranium in its nuclear test reactor in Dalat with low-risk, low-enriched uranium.
Over the past few years, we have also begun to work closely and effectively with Vietnam on critical health issues, such as HIV/AIDS and avian influenza. Vietnamese authorities have worked exceptionally well with us and the rest of the international community in these areas.
Finally, the scope of our diplomatic cooperation is expanding too. We have worked more closely through ASEAN and APEC, and as Vietnam joins the UN Security Council, we expect to engage on a range of international challenges -– from Kosovo, to Congo, to Burma and the Middle East.
Vietnam's economic and cultural integration into the world has helped open Vietnamese society, and expand social freedoms. Many Vietnamese citizens today enjoy more freedom to live, work, and practice his or her faith than at any time since 1975, and most enjoy significantly improved standards of living. For some religious groups, however, restrictions and problems continue, and we share your concerns about those continuing restrictions.
Serious deficiencies remain in political and civil liberties. People have no opportunity to change their government, they risk detention for peaceful expression of political views, and lack the right of fair and expeditious trials. There are significant restrictions on freedom of the press, speech, and assembly, as well as the use of the Internet. After an encouraging opening in political space last year, in early 2007, the Government of Vietnam launched a crackdown on political dissent. Many individuals involved in the pro-democracy group Bloc 8406, and other fledgling pro-democracy or labor groups were detained, arrested, or imprisoned. Some have been released, but many have not. Among the prominent dissidents who still need to be released include Father Ly, Nguyen Van Dai, and Le Thi Cong Nhan.
There have been some positive developments on human rights over the past two years: the resumption of our bilateral human rights dialogue; the release of some high-profile prisoners of concern; greater access by the international community to the Central Highlands and to assess prison conditions; and the repeal of Administrative Decree 31, which let the authorities circumvent due process. Visiting delegations from Hanoi are showing new interest in meeting with NGOs, Vietnamese-American groups, and Members of Congress to discuss human rights and other issues.
Our annual Human Rights Dialogue is an important channel through which we raise our concerns on human rights with the Government of Vietnam. We held our second meeting in April this year, and plan to meet again in 2008. It is a frank exchange and we pull no punches, yet the Vietnamese indicate they take it seriously, even if we do not agree. We have underlined that the Dialogue must be results-based, and focus on concrete action by the government to improve the human rights situation. We also, of course, raise human rights issues regularly outside of this formal dialogue at all levels.
We explain that the United States cares about this issue not because we seek to destabilize the Vietnamese government, but because we value universal human rights and human dignity. We tell Vietnam that improving human rights is in its interests, and will make the country stronger. We tell Vietnam that it has international obligations to promote and protect the fundamental human rights of its people.
There are steps we would like the Vietnamese to take right now, such as ending the use of catch-all "national security" provisions like Article 88 of the criminal code, which outlaws "conducting propaganda against the State," and the release of all remaining political prisoners.
Mr. Chairman, I want to assure you that we will continue to push vigorously for a greater expansion of the civil and political rights of all Vietnamese citizens. After the crackdown on dissent this spring, we have made it clear to the Government of Vietnam that expanding our relationship will depend on progress on all areas, including greater respect for human rights and more freedom for the people of Vietnam.
Whereas Vietnam has made only halting progress in advancing political freedoms, on religious freedom, the country has made real, significant improvements.
From 2004 to 2006, the State Department designated Vietnam as a "Country of Particular Concern" (CPC) regarding religious freedom. During that period, many religious communities faced harassment and discrimination, forced renunciations were widespread, and the country had 45 known religious prisoners. By November 2006, the Government of Vietnam had addressed the problems that constituted severe violations of religious freedom as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998.
A new law on religion was introduced that banned forced renunciation, enshrined individual freedom of religion, and allowed registration of hundreds of Protestant congregations. All individuals raised by the United States as prisoners of concern for reasons connected to their faith have been released. The government has invited any information on allegations that the law is not being carried out. We have monitored the implementation of these improvements carefully –- and been given the access to do so.
Since the CPC designation was removed, there has been further progress:
The government's Committee on Religious Affairs (CRA) has issued seven national-level registrations of religious denominations, including for the Mennonite Vietnam Church and the Vietnam Baptist Convention last month;
The CRA has held over 3,000 training courses and 10,000 training workshops for officials throughout the country, including in highland areas, on how to interpret and implement the new legal framework and policy on religion;
Relations with the Vatican have improved. In January, Prime Minister Dung met Pope Benedict XVI in Vatican City, and last month, the government announced plans for a Joint Working Group to establish diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
Vietnam can do more. We would like to see the government more quickly meet the requests of denominations and places of worship that have applied to register at the national level. We have also urged the government to speed up training of local officials on its 2005 laws on religion. The visit to Vietnam last month of the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom (USCIRF) highlighted the need for the government to be more proactive in ensuring that officials at all levels –- provincial, district, commune, and village –- understand the new legal framework and are implementing it fairly.
Though much still needs to be done, Vietnam no longer qualifies as a severe violator of religious freedom. Key religious leaders within the country, when asked, confirm this. It is vital that we continue to carefully monitor the situation. It is also important that we recognize progress when it occurs and urge that the good work continue.
U.S. official assistance programs support our efforts to engage with Vietnam. The bulk of our assistance goes to support work on HIV/AIDS, under the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program. Our other projects focus on good economic governance, education exchange, and sustainable development–- all key foundations to a robust civil society.
Supporting economic reform has been one of our highest priorities. Our core program has been USAID's Support for Trade Acceleration (STAR) project, in which U.S. experts advise on economic liberalization and new rules and regulations to promote investment and private sector competitiveness. Vietnam has voiced interest in expanding this program into broader legal reform, rule-of-law, and anti-corruption.
U.S. support for education exchange is exposing young Vietnamese leaders to the American society, culture and values. The Fulbright program for Vietnam is one of our largest in Asia. The Vietnam Education Foundation (VEF), established by Congress, supports Vietnamese students of science and technology currently in U.S. colleges. We hope to continue to increase the number of Vietnamese who experience a U.S. education, and diversify the range of subjects that they study.
Our assistance on HIV/AIDS, Avian Influenza, dioxin-related environmental remediation, and other areas promote sustainable development, support the activities of social service NGOs in Vietnam, and help expand the economic and social space in which some sectors of civil society can flourish.
We believe all these programs are important and should continue. These programs are vital to the ability of the United States to support progress in Vietnam towards good governance, rule-of-law, transparency, greater civil liberties, protection of human rights, and a better overall humanitarian situation in Vietnam.
Before I close, Mr. Chairman, allow me to acknowledge the important role that Congress has played in advancing U.S.-Vietnam relations and the cause of human rights in Vietnam. Without Congressional support, we would have never reestablished diplomatic relations with Vietnam. I certainly would not have been sent to Hanoi in 1993, and as a result, probably would not be before you today. As Vietnam and our bilateral ties have transformed, Congress has continued to ensure that human rights and religious freedom remain high priorities in our relationship, as they should be.
Vietnam has changed tremendously in the last fifteen years, and the lives of the vast majority of its people have improved in clear and measurable ways. Problems remain, especially in the area of human rights and democracy, and we must address them squarely. As the President said in his meeting with Vietnam's President Triet this past June, "in order for relations to grow deeper that it's important for our friends to have a strong commitment to human rights and freedom and democracy." It is in our national interests to ensure that the United States continues to be involved in Vietnam's transformation as a partner, and when needed, as a constructive critic.
Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today. I am happy to answer your questions.