WASHINGTON — The Obama administration expressed concern Thursday about Vietnam's "backsliding" on human rights and asserted that advancing individual freedoms is key to U.S. policy in Asia.
One example cited is Hanoi's treatment of bloggers who have faced prosecution under national security laws. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Dan Baer told a congressional panel that Vietnam's authoritarian government is rightly proud of expanding Internet use, but it has diminished the value by curbing free exchange of ideas. Baer described those national security laws as draconian.
U.S. senators urged the administration to emphasize the promotion of human rights and democracy as part of its strategic pivot to Asia, which has primarily been cast as an attempt to increase America's military presence and boost trade in response to China's rise.
"What would set us apart from authoritarian competitors and would lay the groundwork for a truly American legacy in East Asia is a strong commitment to advancing individual freedoms," said Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.
Vietnam is one focus of Washington's outreach but Hanoi's poor human rights record has made that awkward. Vietnam began opening its economy in the late 1980s and wants to integrate with the world, but it remains a one-party state with strict controls on freedom of speech and political expression. Activists, including bloggers, are routinely arrested and imprisoned.
"The government needs to come around to seeing that the Internet penetration they are proud of isn't fully valuable without people being able to exchange ideas," said Baer, whose portfolio covers human rights, democracy and labor standards. He also noted that Vietnam's progress of a few years ago in religious freedom has stagnated.
There's been some brighter news. Hanoi freed American-Vietnamese democracy activist Nguyen Quoc Quan in January and U.S.-trained human rights lawyer Le Cong Dinh in February. That progress, however, has been overshadowed by recent convictions of dozens of other Vietnamese activists who have recent stiff jail terms.
Frustration over Vietnam's failure to improve its rights record prompted the U.S. to postpone an annual human rights dialogue that was due in late 2012. Officials tell The Associated Press the next dialogue has now been set, and will be held in Hanoi in mid-April.
Baer said the U.S. will "continue to make its case firmly" to Hanoi on various rights concerns, and will also raise Internet freedom and labor conditions in negotiations on the U.S.-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional trade pact that involves Vietnam.
Addressing the situation across the broader region, acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Joe Yun asserted that advancing democracy and human rights "binds together" the Asia rebalance strategy.
He expressed deep concern about deteriorating human rights in China, and said the U.S. has told Beijing it regards its repatriation of refugees and asylum-seekers fleeing to China from North Korea as a violation of its international obligations.
On North Korea, which is reputed to hold up to 200,000 people in prison camps, Yun said that improving dire conditions there is an "essential goal" of U.S. policy. Washington has mostly been focused on the threat posed by the North's nuclear weapons program, but it supported a resolution approved Thursday by the U.N.'s highest human rights body to establish an international commission of inquiry into grave abuses there.
Yun voiced optimism about reforms in Myanmar, but said the situation in the country – which is shifting from five decades of direct military rule – would remain difficult until long-running ethnic conflicts are settled. With critical national elections due in 2015, Yun also described the constitutionally mandated presence of 25 percent military appointees in the nation's legislature as "unsustainable."
Referring to neighboring Laos, Yun raised concern over the disappearance of award-winning social activist Sombath Somphone and the situation faced by Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who lives in exile to avoid imprisonment on what Yun said were politically motivated charges.