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.