Leveraging the TPP for Human Rights in Vietnam

Since March, five political prisoners have been released by Hanoi as part of its “policy of leniency.” These dissidents represent the spectrum of those individuals who have been detained by the Vietnamese government.

In March, Vietnamese authorities released Nguyen Huu Cau and Dinh Dang Dinh. Nguyen Huu Cau, a poet and former officer in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), is said to be one of the longest jailed prisoners after having spent 32 years behind bars since 1982. He was handed a life sentence (reduced from a death sentence) for “undermining unity” after daring to write poems and songs about government corruption and abuse of powers – this following his six-year ordeal in a re-education camp after his capture in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War.

On the same day of Cau’s release, Dinh Dang Dinh was also granted amnesty. Suffering from terminal stomach cancer, the teacher, blogger, and environmental activist previously received a suspended sentence on his “anti-state propaganda” charges on medical grounds. Unfortunately, his release was too little, too late, when he died on April 3.

In April, another three dissidents were granted release: Vi Duc Hoi, Nguyen Tien Trung, and Cu Huy Ha Vu. Vi Duc Hoi, a former Communist Party official, was jailed on the grounds of anti-state propaganda after campaigning for democracy; and Nguyen Tien Trung, a blogger, was similarly jailed for subversion. Although no longer in prison, both men face five and three years of house arrest, respectively.

Earlier that month, Cu Huy Ha Vu, a prominent activist and human rights lawyer, and son of Ho Chi Minh’s confidant, was released to the US. Vu was jailed for propagandizing against the state in 2011 after calling for the dissolution of the Communist Party, to be replaced with a multi-party system. His arrest, trial, and subsequent time in prison received much publicity, from his heritage to the expulsion of his lawyer during trial to not receiving adequate medical attention for his heart condition.

Taking advantage of the TPP

Although these developments should certainly be celebrated, neither the US nor the international community should be distracted from the larger issue at hand: primarily, the arrest and detention of these people and others like them should not have occurred in the first place.

If these prisoner releases seem all too familiar to some members of Congress, they would not be mistaken. They need only turn the clock back to 2006 when Vietnam, in an effort to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), released several dissidents to assuage American concerns regarding Vietnam’s commitment to improving human rights.

It seemed to work, for Vietnam is today a member of the WTO. Faced with a similar situation, it is undoubtedly Hanoi’s intention to do more or less the same, to release some prisoners here and there as a show of good faith without having to commit to permanent improvements.

Vietnam has much to gain by joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP may prove to be the most consequential trade agreement in the new millennium. Comprised of twelve members (four signatory and eight negotiating, of which the US and Vietnam are the latter), the TPP aims to integrate the economies of these Pacific countries, which, combined, make up about 40% of the global economy. If successful, the TPP has the potential to become one of the most profitable, and a vehicle through which the US can counter China’s rising influence in Asia-Pacific.

Faced with a lagging economy, and besieged by scandals and criticisms of government economic mismanagement, Hanoi would like nothing more than to score a win by joining the TPP. The release of some dissidents is a small price to pay, especially when they can always be detained again at a later date, and when the international community has turned its attention elsewhere.

To allow Vietnam to join the TPP without committing to concrete reforms would send the wrong message. It is not enough that Hanoi releases some political dissidents, only to return to its old ways once it has joined the TPP. Fortunately, President Obama and Congress have an opportunity to learn from past mistakes and to ensure Vietnam’s leaders commit to lasting improvements.

Whereas Burma established a road map to democracy, it might be too much to expect Vietnam to commit to a similar path in short order. Nevertheless, the US, although itself not yet a signatory member, can leverage Vietnam’s admission to the TPP to establish the foundations for future reform efforts. US membership to the TPP is more or less certain; however, the same could not be said for Vietnam. With the US acting as gatekeeper to the TPP, it can leverage Hanoi for more concessions.

Hanoi’s release of these political dissidents aimed to grease the wheels, to fulfill the absolute minimum of expectations. The reluctance of Vietnam’s leaders to improve human rights is writ large in its “policy of leniency.” Such a policy begs the question, “To what is Vietnam showing leniency?” Is it the right of its citizens to criticize their government without fear of persecution, or demand that their government democratize and respect the most basic of fundamental rights? The US must and should demand more from Hanoi, especially when considering Vietnam’s record of catch-and-release-and-catch.

There is no denying the potential benefits of the TPP. The US can secure an economic foothold in Asia-Pacific if the TPP succeeds. Yet, though the benefits are many, the cost is equally great. If the US intends to succeed in its rebalancing strategy (or “pivot” as it sometimes known) to the region, it must be seen as something more than a visitor. It must demonstrate a vested interest in the people that inhabit the region.

Such a calculation—the benefit of granting Vietnam a place in the TPP and solidifying the trade agreement, at the risk of missing another window of opportunity to effect change in Vietnam—is one that President Obama, but especially the US Congress must weigh, before ratifying the agreement. Regardless of Hanoi’s choices, the proverbial ball rests in America’s court, and the US would be remised if it did not take this opportunity to encourage much needed change.

Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa. His research covers Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law.