Vietnam, US Upgrade Partnership; Activists Critique Silence on Human Rights
Hanoi and Washington have announced an upgrade in bilateral ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership, the top designation in Vietnam’s diplomatic hierarchy. A U.S. strategy of noninterference into Vietnam’s domestic politics has been crucial to Hanoi agreeing to the deal, experts say, but activists and rights groups are frustrated by the lack of focus on human rights as the crackdown on civil society worsens in the Southeast Asian country.
U.S. President Joe Biden arrived in Hanoi on Sunday to meet with General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong. That afternoon, Trong and Biden announced they had agreed to a comprehensive strategic partnership for peace, cooperation, and sustainable development. In a lengthy joint statement, a paragraph was dedicated to the “promotion and protection of human rights.”
Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch Phil Robertson said human rights were treated as an “afterthought” during the visit.
“The White House statement afterwards was pathetic, flagging an ongoing U.S. – Vietnam human rights ‘dialogue’ that conveniently sequesters human rights issues to a symbolic, once a year meeting with mid-level officials who talk but don’t get anything concrete done,” Robertson wrote over email.
Singer and activist Do Nguyen Mai Khoi fled Vietnam for the United States in 2019 after being threatened with arrest. She is disappointed with Washington’s standpoint as she has seen authorities jail all of the country’s activists “who didn’t want to stay quiet or live in hiding” and the government has begun arresting environmentalists and NGO leaders, she told VOA.
There are currently 191 activists in prison in Vietnam, according to the U.S.-based human rights group The 88 Project.
“Human rights and activism in Vietnam has gotten worse and worse since I left,” Mai Khoi wrote over the messaging app Signal. “[The U.S.] thinks they already have done enough for human rights by announcing some statements every time a famous activist gets arrested or giving a prize to a famous political prisoner. I think the U.S. could do better than that.”
Persuading Hanoi that the United States will steer clear of domestic politics has been a yearslong project.
In the past, Vietnamese leaders have been wary that an upgraded partnership with the U.S. would come with the agenda of shifting the country’s communist political system, said Le Hong Hiep, senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. By putting democratic values to the side, he said, Washington was able to persuade Hanoi to upgrade ties.
“There’s a kind of commitment on the U.S. side not to interfere in Vietnam’s politics,” Hiep said. “In recent years they also have become less critical of Vietnam’s human rights record and that also helped to ease the concern of Vietnam’s leadership.”
To quell anti-American resistance, the Biden administration softened its language regarding promoting democracy and made a distinction between “good communists and bad communists” in their National Security Strategy, said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“When you look at the National Security Strategy, the language that was included was not that authoritarian states are a danger to the United States. It says that the administration will focus on opposing authoritarian states who export their authoritarianism,” Poling stated. “What the Biden administration did was steadily soften that language not exclusively for Vietnam, but for Vietnam more than any other country.”
General Secretary Trong spoke to the importance of noninterference while announcing the upgraded partnership Sunday.
“We value America’s stance of supporting a strong, independent, and self-reliant Vietnam,” Trong stated, as reported in the Vietnamese daily newspaper, Thanh Nien. “We also want to emphasize that the understanding of noninterference in each other’s internal affairs are basic principles that are very important.”
Duy Hoang, executive director of Viet Tan, an unsanctioned pro-democracy political party in Vietnam, said there’s been a wave of activist arrests since 2017 and authorities are now cracking down on NGOs and environmentalists.
While he sees the potential benefits the upgraded U.S. partnership could have, he’d like Washington to speak more publicly on human rights.
“It’s important for the people of Vietnam to know that the United States is a friend of the people of Vietnam, not just the government,” he told VOA. “I want to see the U.S. government to be a little bit stronger on human rights.”
Further, he is concerned about how stated aims of the partnership, including addressing climate change, will be addressed considering the active crackdown on civil society.
Five prominent environmentalists have been jailed on tax evasion charges in the last two years, a charge Hoang describes as “trumped up financial charges.” Most recently, Hoang Thi Minh Hong, the former CEO of the environment-focused NGO Change, was arrested for tax evasion and remains in pre-trial detention.
“How can we talk about environmental protection without environmental activists,” Hoang said.
Mai Khoi is still hopeful the U.S. partnership could help human rights conditions in Vietnam but said she’d be disappointed if the deal goes through without the release of leading climate activists, including Hong.
“I will be very disappointed if the climate activists … are still in jail and the upgrade to the partnership still happens,” Mai Khoi said, noting activists she’d liked to see released but who remain jailed.