Allen S. Weiner is a senior lecturer in law at Stanford Law School, where he serves as director of the Program in International and Comparative Law. He has filed a petition with the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention challenging the legality of the arrest and detention of 17 Vietnamese activists last year.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in Hanoi last month that the United States would sign a new regional trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with Vietnam by year’s end. Vietnam’s desire to promote economic development through expanded trade is understandable, and U.S. interest in supporting Vietnam’s economic advancement is commendable. But even as Vietnam seeks to move forward economically, its political system remains mired in a repressive and authoritarian past. Indeed, Clinton’s announcement came shortly before the one-year anniversary of the first stage of the Vietnamese government’s detention of activists whose “crime” has been to advocate governmental action on a broad range of human rights and social justice issues, including environmental, health, legal, political, land and corruption-based concerns. More than a year later, almost all remain in detention; one is under house arrest. Real progress in Vietnam will come only when political reform and respect for the rule of law accompany economic progress.
Over the past year, the Vietnamese government has arrested members of an informal network of social and political activists. The detainees are affiliated with the Roman Catholic Redemptorist Church in Vietnam — a reflection of the pattern of discrimination against religious minorities in that country. Eleven of the petitioners are accused of being members of Viet Tan, a Vietnamese pro-democracy party. The detainees have endured a range of human rights abuses, including violations of their fundamental rights of expression, assembly and association. In addition, the arrests and detentions of these activists violate their rights to due process and fair trials guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other international legal agreements; violations of international standards include warrantless arrests and lengthy pretrial detentions without the filing of charges. After their arrest, the detainees were held incommunicado for months. Some were even convicted through “trials” at which they were not allowed a lawyer. Today, most of these petitioners are languishing in jail without outside contact or basic knowledge as to why they were arrested and are being held. They have had limited access to family members, or in some cases, no contact with relatives at all.
In keeping with a growing pattern of such human rights abuses by the Vietnamese government, these activists were arrested for violating criminal laws that ban “activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration,” the “undermining of national unity” and participating in “propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”
The detainees are all online journalists, bloggers or others who have participated in training activities related to citizen journalism. They have written blog posts, signed petitions and joined nonviolent protests related to a range of issues, including calls for multiparty democracy and opposition to large-scale bauxite mining projects that would cause irreparable environmental damage and displace local residents. In short, they are engaged in legitimate forms of political expression.
Such political expression is protected under international human rights law and under Vietnam’s Constitution, which provides in Article 53 that citizens “have the right to take part in managing the State and society, in debating on general issues of the whole country or of the locality.” Article 69 of the Vietnamese Constitution holds that citizens “are entitled to freedom of speech and freedom of the press” and have “the right of assembly, association and demonstration in accordance with the law.” Instead of protecting these rights, however, the Vietnamese government has been using the law to prohibit basic freedom of speech, assembly and association.
To her credit, Clinton raised concerns about Vietnam’s human rights record during her recent trip, including the detention of activists, lawyers and bloggers whose only crime is the peaceful expression of ideas. “I know there are some who argue that developing economies need to put economic growth first and worry about political reform and democracy later, but that is a short-sided bargain,” she said.
The United States must go beyond a rhetorical defense of human rights in Vietnam. Our country should not contribute to the “short-sided bargain” Clinton warned of by promoting deeper commercial ties without simultaneously insisting that Vietnam honor its international human rights obligations. U.S. officials should demand that Vietnam can start by releasing the activists arrested last year and others who have been detained solely for seeking a voice in their country’s future. The United States should not reward Vietnam by including it in the Trans-Pacific Partnership while the government in Hanoi uses its legal systems to stifle dissent and perpetrate human rights abuses.