More than a dozen U.S. lawmakers have urged the newly appointed American Ambassador to Vietnam to give a higher priority to raising human rights issues in the communist-ruled nation.
The 14 members of Congress sent a letter to Ambassador David Shear requesting that he address concerns such as rule of law, Internet freedom, and suppression of political dissent, in addition to strengthening ties between the former rival nations.
Congressional Caucus on Vietnam Representatives Loretta Sanchez, Zoe Lofgren, Chris Smith, and Frank Wolf led the group in pushing for the tougher stance.
The lawmakers said that Shear’s appointment comes at “a pivotal time as Vietnam pursues economic gains through its bilateral relations with the U.S. but continues to fail on what the United States regards as a priority: respect for the fundamental human rights of its citizens.”
They said that his commitment to improving U.S.-Vietnam educational cooperation must be coupled with advocacy for a free Internet.
“When the Vietnamese government curtails Internet freedom, they are placing limits on the country’s economic future as well as on people’s social mobility and education.”
The members of Congress said that Vietnam’s rapid growth in Internet penetration since 2000 has provided a space for civil society to grow, but has also become an increasing target for repression, noting that dozens of bloggers and cyberactivists have been harassed and detained in recent years.
Meanwhile, they said, Vietnam has jailed hundreds of political and religious prisoners who have advocated for social justice and religious freedom.
Repression of dissent
The lawmakers pointed specifically to the May 30 trial in Ben Tre province of seven religious and pro-democracy activists, who they said were “denied their right to an open and fair trial according to the Vietnamese Constitution and international norms.”
Pastors, priests, and members of Vietnam’s religious community have faced forced renunciation of their faith, harassment, arrest, and imprisonment for following their spiritual convictions, they said.
“Rather than encourage religious expression, the Government of Vietnam continues to suppress peoples of faith,” the letter read.
The members of Congress urged Shear to push the Vietnamese government on the unconditional release of prisoners detained for peaceful activism and to end the repression of religious freedom.
They recommended that he meet often with jailed dissidents and their families to show the U.S. commitment to protecting human rights in the country and to learn about the challenges facing activists there.
The lawmakers also asked Shear to “deepen the focus on legal reform” by insisting that the Vietnamese government repeal or revise vague national security provisions which are used to arrest and detain citizens advocating for religious freedom, free speech and association.
They recommended that the new ambassador work with Hanoi to ensure that existing laws do not restrict the practice of religious freedom and that legislation on trafficking in persons be strictly enforced, guaranteeing the protection of victims and the punishment of traffickers.
Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department did not include Vietnam in its annual "Countries of Particular Concern" (CPC) blacklist of top violators of religious freedom, as demanded by rights groups.
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner indicated that the situation in Vietnam, which was in the CPC blacklist from 2004 to 2006, would continue to be monitored.
The independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a congressional watchdog, had asked President Barack Obama's administration to reinstate Vietnam on the blacklist, saying the communist government there severely restricts religious practice and "brutally" represses those who challenge its authority.
The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has accused Vietnam of mounting a sophisticated and sustained attack on online dissent that includes detaining and intimidating anti-government bloggers.
Reporters Without Borders ranked Vietnam 165th out of 178 countries on its press freedom index and listed the country as an “Enemy of the Internet” in a report issued in March this year.