Attack on a diplomat shows Vietnam's contempt for human rights

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By Nguyen Dan Que
Saturday, February 26, 2011

CHO LON, VIETNAM

While the world's attention is riveted on the Middle East, democracy continues to struggle to take root in other regions.

Only last summer, Vietnam and the United States celebrated the 15th anniversary of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. The resumption of ties has proved profitable for Vietnam: The United States is its largest foreign investor, the countries have more than $15 billion in annual bilateral trade, and 13,000 Vietnamese nationals are attending college in America.

Despite these developments, a U.S. official in Vietnam was manhandled by a crowd last month while police stood by. Christian Marchant, a political officer attached to the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, was roughed up when he attempted to visit a dissident Roman Catholic priest.

The meeting between Marchant and Nguyen Van Ly had been arranged in advance. Ly told Radio Free Asia that police prevented Marchant from entering his house and pushed him to the ground when he tried to pass them.

Some witnesses said a car door was slammed on Marchant's leg before he was taken away by police. A State Department spokesman said that day that Marchant's injury was not serious but that he was limping after the incident.

The U.S. ambassador in Hanoi, Michael Michalak, called the incident "a flagrant violation of international law." A spokesman for Vietnam's Foreign Ministry has said an investigation is being conducted - but warned that foreign diplomats should observe the laws of their host country.

Perhaps it is Vietnam, though, that needs to familiarize itself with international law. The Vienna Convention in particular makes clear that it is the responsibility of host countries to prevent assaults on foreign diplomats.

Factors contributing to Vietnam's behavior predate the signing of a bilateral trade agreement, Vietnam's entry into the World Trade Organization or even the resumption of diplomatic relations with Washington. At each juncture, Vietnam has promised to respect human rights and comply with international law. Each time, however, Vietnam has learned that it can reap all the benefits without honoring any of its promises.

Two days before the January incident, the hometown paper of Marchant's parents, the Richmond (Ky.) Register, published a profile noting that he was to share the State Department's Human Rights and Democracy Award in February. The article cited a State Department news release calling Marchant "a persuasive advocate for Vietnam's beleaguered dissident community, tirelessly serving as a conduit for imprisoned dissidents, their families, and the outside world."

In the profile, Marchant speaks about his attempts to find common ground with the Vietnamese. But he made clear that the United States could not be silent about abuses. In the past year, he told the paper, 25 Vietnamese have been jailed for criticizing their government.

"The big difference between the two countries," he said, "is that if people in a position of authority in the United States abuse an individual, they go to jail."


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© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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