PRESIDENT TRUMP met with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc last month to discuss trade and security issues. In their public statements about the visit, one topic got short shrift: human rights.
This was a glaring lapse. Vietnam has a long history of stifling dissent and cracking down on political activists. The State Department’s Vietnam 2016 Human Rights Report called the country an “authoritarian state.” Freedom House gives it the lowest possible rating on political rights and classifies it as “not free.”
According to Human Rights Watch, the repression may have worsened in the past two years. After a brief improvement in 2014 and 2015 — while Vietnam was negotiating trade agreements with the United States — the number of people prosecuted and convicted for political crimes has increased. This has coincided with an uptick in violent attacks against activists and bloggers who have spoken out against the party line. Some of these assaults have reportedly taken place inside police stations or in public spaces in broad daylight. Human Rights Watch believes that the vast majority of these cases have not been investigated.
Despite these reports, the joint statement released by the White House after the visit lauded Vietnam for its “ongoing efforts to refine its legal system to better protect and promote human rights for everyone.” That is laughable; Vietnam has done just the opposite. While the Vietnam National Assembly made some concessions to human rights in the 2015 criminal procedure code, its revisions to the penal code that same year further curtailed free expression. Calls from citizens and civil society to repeal or amend these provisions have fallen on deaf ears, and just this week the National Assembly passed another iteration of the penal code that is even more draconian. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the Obama administration negotiated with Vietnam and other nations, would have provided an incentive to the communist regime to ease its repression. But Mr. Trump jettisoned that accord, and in failing to publicly raise these issues in May he missed another opportunity.
Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have raised concerns about Vietnam’s human rights abuses, showing that the administration’s heedlessness does not represent American values. The State Department should take note and speak out in support of the activists who have championed democracy at grave personal risk.
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