By: David Brown

Human rights – chiefly political and religious freedoms – have been on the American agenda since Washington and Hanoi resumed direct dialogue about a quarter of a century ago. Though bilateral ties have grown vastly broader, US prodding on civil liberties still piques Vietnam’s one-party regime. 

Skepticism that Vietnam would live up to labor rights promises was prominent in the US debate over the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. The Obama administration has insisted that the US embargo on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam won’t be lifted until there is “significant progress” on human rights.

In the absence of spectacular lightening up on civil liberties by Hanoi, the Americans are unlikely to shelve their criticism no matter how close US–Vietnam ties may become in other respects. With some justification, Hanoi can complain that Washington holds it, among America’s friends, to a uniquely high standard. There’s a subjective element at work here: Vietnam’s intolerance of domestic dissent is a significant impediment to the resolution of America’s Vietnam War trauma. Americans want their former foes to be like America. If, like Germany and Japan, the Vietnamese become exemplary world citizens, the sting of defeat is eased, the spilt blood and treasure somehow justified.

Eighteen months ago, a US diplomat in Hanoi gave me a wallet-sized summary of American human rights objectives. The United States, the card said, “supports a strong, prosperous and independent Vietnam that promotes human rights and the rule of law.” It listed five “prisoners of concern” (only one remains in jail; two were expelled to the United States).

The card also listed a number of specific objectives. Among them is one that Hanoi must wish it never agreed to: the July 2014 visit of UN Human Rights Commission’s Special Rapporteur on Religion, Heiner Bielefeldt. Someone, perhaps in the Foreign Ministry, did heavy lifting to get Bielefeldt’s mission approved. But it went badly. In several towns, internal security personnel harassed the believers that Bielefeldt had arranged to meet. Furious, the special rapporteur aborted his mission and filed a damning report.

Was the fiasco the result of sabotage by die-hard ideologues? Was it just a bungle traceable to a lack of coordination between center and province, or party commission and ministry? Or was it evidence of the regime’s fundamental aversion to values that the West asserts are universal?

In May, for the 19th time, American and Vietnamese officials discussed Hanoi’s performance in the sphere of human rights. By some accounts, the bilateral dialogue has become more cordial in recent years: “US officials describe the two-way discussion as being more straightforward …. Vietnamese officials, pointing to progress being made on human rights, call on the US side to show more patience.”

The Americans, aiming to leverage Hanoi’s keen interest in escaping the middle income trap, press the notion that political pluralism and proliferation of civil society institutions are essential foundations of a just and prosperous society. These are thoughts that resonate with the 61 retired Communist Party members who, a year ago, published an open appeal to current leaders. To the extent that online advocacy is a reliable index, they also resonate with politically aware Vietnamese who are not party members.

Apparently the American officials don’t press for specific change. Revision of Vietnam’s criminal code isn’t among the nine bullet points on the US summary mentioned above. They say nothing about Article 258, which prohibits citizens from abusing democratic freedoms to infringe on the interests of the state; Article 79, which prohibits activities aimed at “overthrowing the people’s administration”; or Article 88, which criminalizes “propaganda” against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Nor, for that matter, is there anything on the card about free elections or multiple parties.