UN and US Must Press for Change in Vietnam

02/05/2014 12:52 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2014

By Shawn W. Crispin/CPJ Southeast Asia Representative

As Vietnam’s human rights record goes before a United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review (UPR) today, Hanoi’s official delegation is necessarily on the diplomatic defensive. As with past presentations to the global body, Vietnamese officials will aim to distract attention from their suppressive ways--nowhere more than in the case of imprisoned blogger Nguyen Van Hai, popularly known as Dieu Cay in Vietnam’s increasingly repressed blogosphere. 

First arrested on trumped-up tax evasion charges in 2008, Hai is now serving a 12-year prison sentence for “conducting propaganda” against the state, an ill-defined criminal offense frequently used by Vietnamese authorities to stifle dissent and curb free expression. Last year, Hai staged a five-week hunger strike after prison guards put him in solitary confinement for refusing to sign a confession that his critical blogging was tantamount to an anti-state crime.

Hai is the unfortunate poster child of one of the world’s most severe and ongoing crackdowns on press and Internet freedoms. With at least 18 journalists behind bars, Vietnam is Asia’s second worst jailer of journalists, trailing only China, according to the most recent prison survey compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Of those behind bars, 16 have been imprisoned for their Internet-based journalism.  

Most have been charged or convicted under harsh but vague anti-state laws. Many of their online postings were critical of the Communist Party-dominated government, its leadership, or its policies. As Vietnam’s economy slips from dynamic to anemic growth, official censorship has extended to the Party’s economic management. Underscoring the regime’s rising aversion to bad news, an executive decree that came into force in 2013 bans social media users from posting links to news articles.

Earlier hopes were that Vietnam’s integration with the wider international community, including its highly coveted 2007 accession to the World Trade Organization, would over time lead to more political openness and greater allowances for freedom of expression. Instead, Vietnam has emerged as a role model for global authoritarian regimes eager to win the benefits of engagement with the West without undertaking improvements on basic human rights.     

Despite a rising tide of repression, including the harsh sentencing of seven independent bloggers in 2013, the international community continues to heap commercial, diplomatic, and strategic rewards on Vietnam’s authoritarian rulers.  For instance, in November Vietnam was elected by the U.N.’s General Assembly to the 47-member U.N. Human Rights Council, a selection that overlooked Hanoi’s abysmal human rights and press freedom records. The same compromised Council will oversee Vietnam’s UPR this week.

The U.S. has likewise often turned a blind eye to Hanoi’s repression in realpolitik pursuit of a wider strategic agenda. Vietnam has emerged as a key partner in President Barack Obama’s “pivot” towards Asia, a policy gambit that aims to counterbalance China’s regional rise through enhanced commercial and defense ties with neighboring countries. The two sides are now engaged in various alliance-enhancing negotiations, including talks toward Vietnam’s entry into the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) preferential trade pact and the development of stronger maritime security ties.   

During an official visit to Hanoi in December, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly told his Vietnamese counterparts that greater respect for human rights, including matters related to freedom of speech, are key to improving relations with Washington. U.S. officials said in advance of Kerry’s visit that he would raise the cases of specific political prisoners the U.S. would like to see released--though it is not clear if those demands made Kerry’s final private talking points.

Near the end of his trip, Kerry announced an $18 million military grant, including funds for five fast patrol boats that Vietnam’s Coast Guard desperately needs to counter China’s rising assertiveness over contested territories in the South China Sea. The grant was extended without any reciprocal gestures from Hanoi on human rights or freedom of expression.

Without clear-cut repercussions for non-compliance, as is currently the case, Vietnamese leaders likely chalked up Kerry’s public comments on freedom of speech and other rights to more empty rhetoric from Washington. Until the U.S., U.N., and wider international community genuinely predicate future commercial, diplomatic, and strategic engagement on demonstrable progress on rights such as press freedom, Vietnam’s communist leaders will continue their repression fearless of losing the international benefits and standing they covet and crave.

A logical and moral starting point for such a policy pivot would be a collective demand for the immediate and unconditional release of Dieu Cay and the other 17 journalists now wrongfully languishing in Vietnamese prisons. Over 10,000 people signed an online petition CPJ initiated in November calling for Dieu Cay’s freedom. That call would undoubtedly resonate more deeply in Hanoi with the understanding that jailing journalists and suppressing the press will, unlike at present, have a material impact on the ruling Party’s interests.

Shawn W. Crispin, a Bangkok-based editor and journalist, serves as the Committee to Protect Journalists’ senior Southeast Asia representative.

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