Vietnam Emboldened by U.S. Backtracking on Civil Rights Abroad

Vietnamese blogger Huynh Ngoc Chênh

July 30, 2017; Vietnam Right Now

Civil liberties are under threat in Vietnam, where police have intensified their crackdown on dissidents. Four more dissidents were arrested, bringing the total to 15 so far in 2017.

According to Vietnam Right Now, “The four are accused of associating with the human rights lawyer, Nguyen Van Dai, who was been held without trial since December 2015.” TIME reports that “they now stand accused of attempting to ‘overthrow the people’s administration,’ a much more serious charge that can sometimes carry the death penalty.”

Vietnam’s Communist party, like China’s, exercises control over social media and does not permit criticism of the government. In the past, the United States exerted pressure on governments to protect human rights, including free speech. However, the Trump administration has been lax about enforcing human rights across the globe; NPQ reported when Trump met with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, whose government is responsible for thousands of extrajudicial killings in its brutal war on drugs.

Reuters reported that “activists say authorities have been emboldened by the Trump administration’s lack of emphasis on human rights [and] U.S. President Donald Trump’s early decision to drop the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal also removed a clear incentive for Hanoi to show a better rights record.”

This is exactly the kind of situation that diplomats and civil rights advocates fear will become more common if the United States does not maintain its role as a human rights advocate. Alarmingly, as The Hill reported yesterday:

According to an email sent to State Department employees on Friday and obtained by the [Washington Post’s] Josh Rogin, statements on the agency’s mission, purpose and ambition do not contain language regarding the promotion of democracy…Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has also sought to promote the president’s “America first” agenda, explaining to State Department employees during a speech in May that promoting U.S. “values” sometimes “creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.”

Amnesty International reported that in 2016-2017 in Vietnam,

Peaceful criticism of government policies continued to be silenced through judicial and extra-legal means. There was extensive surveillance and harassment of activists, including those who demonstrated against the Formosa ecological disaster which affected the lives of an estimated 270,000 people. Attacks against human rights defenders were commonplace.

The protection of civil rights through diplomatic means is a core responsibility of the United State government; to suggest, as Secretary Tillerson has done, that values such as democracy and human rights promotion should be subservient to economic interests seems morally blind at best.

Public dissent over the Formosa chemical leak on Vietnam’s northwest coast last year has caused alarm among Communist officials. In addition, recent changes in leadership have led to a more conservative group taking charge. These factors combined have led to greater numbers of arrests and harsher sentences for civil activists in the country.

For human rights advocates everywhere, the abdication of responsibility in places like Vietnam is of grave concern. It is incumbent upon civil society to pressure our elected representatives to hold up their responsibility to protect those rights here and abroad.—Erin Rubin