Wolf Criticizes Obama Administration For Failure To Address Human Rights In Vietnam

Source: wolf.whitehouse.gov

Washington, D.C. (July 10, 2013) – Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), co-chairman of the Congressional Vietnam Caucus and the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, as well as a longtime advocate for human rights and religious freedom globally, today released the following statement charging the Obama Administration with neglect in dealing with the deteriorating human rights situation in Vietnam.

Wolf’s remarks, which were submitted to the Congressional Record, are the first in an upcoming series of statements he will make highlighting the administration’s failures to prioritize human rights and religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy.  On Monday, Wolf took to the House floor and announced his intention to outline the Obama administrations silence or ineptitude “in country after country when it comes to advocating for the oppressed, the marginalized and the vulnerable.”

The full text of Wolf’s remarks on Vietnam are below:

Mr. Speaker, As one of four bipartisan co-chairs of the Congressional Vietnam Caucus I have witnessed a deteriorating human rights situation in Vietnam in recent years which has been met with a complete lack of urgency and priority on the part of the Obama administration.

In fairness this posture is not unlike that of the previous administration which also preferred a bilateral relationship defined almost exclusively by trade—unmarred by thorny matters such as human rights and religious freedom abuses.

I was critical then, too.  I submit for the Record an April 2007 letter I sent to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, citing several recent arrests and assaults carried out by the government of Vietnam against the Vietnamese people in which I urged the State Department, a request which fell on deaf ears, to consider cancelling the planned visit to the United States of the Vietnamese president and prime minister if the situation did not improve.

Sadly the situation in Vietnam has only worsened since that time.  A July 8 ABC News story reported, “Since the start of this year more than 50 people have been convicted and jailed in political trials.”

The government of Vietnam, which our own State Department describes as an “authoritarian state ruled by a single party,” continues to suppress political dissent and severely limit freedom of expression, association, and public assembly. Religious activists are subject to arbitrary arrest.

On May 5th, police violently broke up peaceful “human rights picnics” in several  different cities in Vietnam where young bloggers and activists were disseminating and discussing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights documents.  Human Rights Watch reported that, “The police also employed other methods to prevent the human rights picnics from occurring. In Hanoi, youth delegations were sent to intimidate picnickers at Nghia Do Park, chanting slogans such as ‘Long Live the Glorious Communist Party of Vietnam’ and ‘Long Live Ho Chi Minh.’”

On May 16, 2013, Nguyen Phuong Uyen, 21, and Dinh Nguyen Kha, 25 were sentenced to 6 years and 8 years in prison respectively simply for handing out pamphlets that were characterized by the court as “propaganda against the state.”  Radio Free Asia reported that the pair were “convicted under Article 88 of the penal code, a provision rights groups say the government has used to muzzle dissent, and both will serve three years of house arrest following their prison terms.”

Police also violently broke up anti-China protests in Hanoi on June 2, 2013 and arrested more than twenty people en masse.

Last year, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, which I co-chair, convened a hearing focused on human rights abuses in Vietnam.  During the hearing Members of Congress heard testimony from Mrs. Mai Huong Ngo, the wife of Dr. Nguyen Quoc Quan, a Vietnamese-American democracy activist and U.S. citizen.  Upon his arrival in Vietnam on April 17, 2012 he was arbitrarily detained and imprisoned.  Then Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Michael Posner testified at the Lantos Commission hearing and revealed that no one from the State Department had been in touch with Dr. Quan’s wife since his detention.  Only at my urging did U.S. ambassador to Vietnam David Shear initiate contact with Mrs. Ngo to update her on her husband’s situation.

This is but one of many examples of the U.S. embassy, under the leadership of Ambassador Shear, failing to serve as an island of freedom in a sea of repression.  This was all the more troubling given that Dr. Quan is an American citizen.  The lack of urgency in securing Dr. Quan’s release was stunning.

I spoke by phone multiple times with Ambassador Shear and expressed my deep concerns about the case broadly and the State Department’s failure to bring about a swift resolution. I further urged the ambassador to host a July 4th celebration at the embassy and to invite prominent religious freedom and democracy activists in the country— as was frequently done under President Reagan during the dark days of the Cold War— thereby sending a strong message that America stands with those who stand for basic human rights.  Ambassador Shear indicated his willingness to do so and the State Department confirmed this intention in subsequent correspondence.

Shockingly, I learned weeks later that many of the most prominent democracy and human rights activists in Vietnam had never received an invitation.  When confronted with the seeming inconsistency, Ambassador Shear claimed that he had invited a few civil society activists but that he needed to maintain a “balance.”  When I repeatedly requested a copy of the guest list, to ascertain who specifically had been invited and if the members of Vietnamese civil society were mere token representatives the State Department repeatedly refused to provide it.

Ultimately several other Members of Congress, upon learning of Ambassador Shear’s posture and handling of the situation, joined me in calling for his removal and urged that an individual “who will embrace the struggle of the Vietnamese people and advocate on their behalf” fill his spot.

A July 2012 Wall Street Journal editorial headlined, “State Fumbles in Hanoi,” echoed this call.  The Journal described the State Department’s posture in Vietnam and throughout the region in this way: “This is a classic State Department maneuver, practiced throughout Asia-Pacific but especially in repressive countries in which the U.S. has economic interests.  Diplomats say they care about human rights, but not so much that it creates a political uproar that they’d have to work to resolve.  Thus when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to Vietnam this week, she made a generic statement about human rights and a ‘Senior State Department Official’ gave journalists a briefing.  Vietnam’s Party bosses must be shaking in their boots.”

After languishing for nine months in a Vietnamese prison, Dr. Quan once again breathed the fresh air of freedom.  A local CBS affiliate in California interviewed him after his return home and he attributed his release to Congressional pressure.  Pressing authoritarian regimes and repressive governments to respect basic human rights can yield positive results, but inexplicably that is almost never the instinct of the State Department or this administration.

Fast-forward to today. This week it had been expected that prominent Vietnamese dissident and lawyer Le Quoc Quan would face trial.   A July 8 Wall Street Journal editorial highlighted that, “Mr. Le was arrested after he wrote a column for the BBC’s website in which he argued for a new constitution without a guarantee of a Communist Party monopoly on power…The supposed crime for which Mr. Le is being charged is tax evasion, an alibi Hanoi has used in the past to incarcerate dissidents. A tax-law conviction would allow Hanoi to jail this inconvenient man for up to seven years while claiming he is not a political prisoner. Hanoi may be particularly sensitive about preserving that fiction because Mr. Le also has a connection to Washington.”

That connection came in the form of a National Endowment for Democracy fellowship in 2006-07.  Mr. Le was arrested just four days after he returned to Vietnam and released only after intense U.S. pressure.  He was rearrested late last year while taking one of his three children to school and has been jailed ever since.

Tuesday afternoon, Radio Free Asia reported that his trial had been abruptly postponed less than 24 hours before it was to get underway.  RFA further reported that, “According to Quan’s relatives and fellow dissidents, hundreds of supporters—including Catholics—had planned to gather outside the court at the trial, which comes amid a wave of jailings in recent weeks of bloggers and activists speaking critically of Vietnam’s one-party government.”

Indeed, amidst this wave of political repression, in the face of growing popular dissent is Vietnam, rather than being buoyed by strong statements of support and solidarity from Washington, and the U.S. embassy, has been met with virtual silence.   

In the realm of religious freedom, the situation also remains dire.  In its recently released report, the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) found that, “The government of Vietnam continues to expand control over all religious activities, severely restrict independent religious practice, and repress individuals and religious groups it views as challenging its authority.” 

Later in the report the Commission characterized the government’s repression in the following way: “The Vietnamese government continues to imprison individuals for religious activity or religious freedom advocacy. It uses a specialized religious police force (công an tôn giáo) and vague national security laws to suppress independent Buddhist, Protestant, Hoa Hao, and Cao Dai activities, and seeks to stop the growth of ethnic minority Protestantism and Catholicism via discrimination, violence and forced renunciations of their faith.”

Despite repeated congressional calls, including in House-passed legislation, and the recommendation of USCIRF to place Vietnam on the Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) list for ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, this administration has failed to do so. In fact the administration has not designated any CPC countries since August 2011—nearly two years ago—despite the Congressional mandate included in the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to annually make such designations.

This is but a snap shot of a deteriorating human rights situation in Vietnam—a situation which merits bold U.S. leadership, not mere lip-service.

I have repeatedly said that it would be fitting for a Vietnamese-American to serve as U.S. ambassador to Vietnam—someone who understands the country, the language and the oppressive nature of the government having experienced it themselves before coming to the U.S.  Such an individual would not be tempted to maintain smooth bilateral relations at all costs.  Such an individual would embrace, without apology, the cause of freedom.

The Vietnamese people and frankly millions of Vietnamese-Americans deserve better than what Ambassador Shear and this administration have given them.  The Obama administration has failed every citizen of Vietnam and every Vietnamese-American who cares about human rights and religious freedom.

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