Cablegate: Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue Scenesetter

Published: Thu 5 Nov 2009 07:06 AM
DE RUEHHI #1182/01 3090707
O R 050706Z NOV 09
E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue Scenesetter
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Summary and Comment
1. (SBU) U.S. ties and engagement with Vietnam have advanced
significantly since the last Human Rights Dialogue meeting in May
2008. Cooperation on trade, health and education, coupled with
high-level visits and regular dialogues on defense, security and
policy planning, have moved relations to their highest point since
normalization. However, fundamental differences of opinion over
human rights remain. These differences will not be resolved in the
near term and, if not managed carefully, could complicate
cooperation in other areas. Despite limited progress on religious
freedom and prisoner releases, the Vietnamese government has
intensified its crackdown on political dissent and implemented new
restrictions on civil society, the press, and bloggers. Since the
last dialogue meeting, nearly three dozen political activists have
been arrested, leading editors and journalists fired, and several
well-known bloggers detained or forced to cease their activities.
2. (SBU) Vietnam would like to separate human rights from other
areas of the relationship and restrict discussion of the issue to
the Human Rights Dialogue. The Secretary's meeting with her
Vietnamese counterpart in Washington in early October highlighted
the importance that we attach to human rights as a critical part of
our overall relationship. The Human Rights Dialogue is a useful
opportunity to reiterate this message and make clear that lack of
progress on human rights could negatively impact progress in other
areas. In addition to expressing our deep concerns about the
deteriorating human rights situation in Vietnam, we should use the
Dialogue to explore concrete areas of cooperation in the areas of
governance and rule of law. However, the Dialogue is unfortunately
not likely to produce an immediate improvement in the overall human
rights situation in Vietnam. End Summary and Comment.
DG Trung and Vietnam's Approach to Human Rights Engagement
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3. (SBU) The head of the GVN delegation, MFA International
Organizations Director General Le Hoai Trung ("Choong"), is one of
Vietnam's finest diplomats. Thoughtful, well-spoken, and open to
creative solutions, Trung is not afraid to toe the party line when
challenged. He passionately believes Vietnam has made great
strides in improving the lives of its people and can be expected to
ardently defend Vietnam's human rights record along the lines laid
out by the Vietnamese delegation in Geneva during the UPR. He will
also defend the GVN's recent crackdown on dissent, especially with
members of the Ministry of Public Security in attendance, stating
that Vietnam is merely enforcing its existing laws. At the same
time, Trung is pragmatic and open to exploring ways to increase
bilateral cooperation on specific projects - a trait he has
displayed during Vietnam's human rights dialogues with other
countries and one we recommend exploiting in our meeting. As one
of Vietnam's first Fulbright students (1993), Trung studied at the
Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and speaks fluent English. A
protege of Deputy Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, Trung is a
leading contender to succeed Minh as Vice Foreign Minister if Minh
is promoted to Foreign Minister in January 2011.
4. (SBU) DG Trung will represent Vietnam's aspirations to be
viewed as a responsible member of the international community,
pointing to Vietnam's tenure as a non-permanent member of the UNSC
and Vietnam's upcoming chairmanship of ASEAN. Vietnam has become
more comfortable with its human rights dialogues, both less
woodenly doctrinaire and more savvy in deflecting criticism.
Perhaps the clearest example of this was the extensive efforts that
Vietnam took to control the Universal Periodic Review (UPR)
process, which showed the government's sensitivity to criticism of
its human rights record and the lengths it will go to influence
international perception.
Amnesties, Conventions/Rapporteurs, and the Rule of Law
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5. (SBU) As evidence of its growing sophistication on human rights
issues, Vietnam sees the utility of agreeing to dialogues, in
selective amnesties of political prisoners, in ratifying (but
selectively implementing) international human rights conventions
such as the UN Declaration on Human Rights and the International
Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and in inviting UN
Special Rapporteurs on less-controversial issues such as the Right
to Food, the Right to Education and the Right to Health. (The GVN
is not likely to invite the Special Rapporteur on the Right to
Freedom of Opinion.) We have seen all of these tactics used in the
year and a half since our last Dialogue. For example, Vietnam
ratified the Convention Against Corruption in June, and has
indicated it intends to ratify the Convention on the Rights of
Persons with Disabilities soon, as well as sign the Convention
Against Torture by the end of this year. These are calculated yet
positive steps that provide grounds for fostering bilateral
6. (SBU) Following the last dialogue meeting, the GVN released Ms.
Bui Kim Thanh from her involuntary commitment to a mental
institution and permitted her to emigrate to the United States as
part of the P-1 visa program. This year the government granted
amnesty to well-known journalist Nguyen Viet Chien, People's
Democratic Party (PDP) activist Tran Thi Le Hang, land-rights
protester Dang Tien Thong, four Khmer Krom Buddhist monks convicted
for involvement in land protests (Kim Moeun, Danh Tol, Thach Thuong
and Ly Hoang), and Nguyen Huu Hai and Nguyen Hong Son, adherents of
an unrecognized branch of Cao Daiism who were deported from
Cambodia and jailed in Vietnam. More than 100 Montagnards from
the Central Highlands who were convicted for violating national
security laws in 2001 and 2004 were also released this year. The
government continues to maintain that there are no prisoners of
conscience, and that no one is arrested for merely expressing
dissent. The dialogue offers a useful opportunity to press for the
release of our core prisoners of concern.
7. (SBU) Vietnam and the Department of Labor have cooperated on
six technical projects on industrial relations in the past. USAID
recently initiated a project to improve labor law, and has begun a
new project to improve labor relations, collective bargaining and
compliance with international labor standards in the area of
freedom of association. Vietnam's strong desire for GSP gives us
leverage to press the GVN to take meaningful steps on labor rights,
particularly on freedom of association. Post is pleased that USTR
is participating in the dialogue. USTR's active involvement
reinforces the message that trade and human rights are
interconnected, and that Vietnam cannot expect to move forward in
one area without progress in the other.
Religious Freedom
8. (SBU) There continues to be uneven progress in the area of
religious freedom. The government has improved registration and
recognition of religious groups at the national level and, to a
lesser extent, in the provinces. The GVN has recognized 31
religious organizations affiliated with 11 recognized religions.
Since the Country of Particular Concern (CPC) designation was
lifted in 2006, the GVN has recognized 16 new religious
organizations, including eight new Protestant denominations, and
more than 1,000 Protestant meeting points in the Central Highlands
have reopened. The most glaring exception to the progress on
registration remains the Northwest Highlands, where hundreds of
Evangelical Church of Vietnam-North (ECVN) congregations await
responses to their registration applications. Additional positive
steps include efforts by the government to facilitate the education
of thousands of new monks, priests, nuns, and pastors and
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permitting Buddhists, Catholics, and Protestants to hold several
large-scale religious services throughout the country, with more
than 10,000 religious followers participating in each event.
Caritas was registered last fall, and religions continue to
increase their charitable activities. The U.S. Commission on
International Religious Freedom, however, equates political dissent
with religious practice, and recommends Vietnam be returned to the
list of Countries of Particular Concern.
9. (SBU) Vietnam's improving record on religious freedom has been
tarred by the forced eviction in September of nearly 400 monks and
nuns affiliated with Thich Nhat Hanh's Plum Village Order from the
Bat Nha Pagoda. This eviction, and the violence associated with
it, were preceded by months of intimidation, including physical
attacks. You should be frank with DG Trung that these incidents,
especially the GVN's unwillingness to protect monks and nuns from
violence and forced eviction, can impact our overall relations and
gives ammunition to those who want Vietnam to be re-designated as a
Country of Particular Concern. Vietnam has been slow to
acknowledge the damage caused by the Lang Mai/Bat Nha dispute, and
DG Trung is likely to repeat the now-standard GVN line that the
incidents reflected a convoluted intra-Buddhist disagreement. As
religious freedom progresses in Vietnam, religious groups are
increasingly demanding more from the government than the right to
worship freely -- including the desire to be more involved in
charitable activities and seeking resolution to longstanding
property disputes. As we saw with the large-scale Catholic
protests last fall in Hanoi and this summer in Quang Binh province,
there are complicated historical and land-use issues at play, but
until the government develops a transparent, fair process for
adjudicating claims, problems will continue to fester and
occasionally flair up.
Crackdown on Political Dissent
10. (SBU) Vietnam's limited progress on religious freedom has been
overshadowed by an increasing crackdown suppressing political
opposition and silencing dissent in advance of anticipated
leadership changes at the Party Congress in January 2011. More
than 35 dissidents, land rights activists, and political opponents
have been arrested since our last dialogue; of these, at least 22
are affiliated with the "Bloc 8406" political movement or the
Democratic Party of Vietnam. Most of these have been convicted for
violating Article 88 -- Vietnam's catch-all national security law.
The GVN has invoked Article 88 with increasing frequency since the
last dialogue, and the threshold of what constitutes a crime has
been lowered. At the same time, jail terms have declined compared
to previous periods. Political prisoners awaiting trial include
several on the Department's core list of prisoners of concern:
leading attorney Le Cong Dinh, co-founder of the Viet Youth for
Democracy Nguyen Tien Trung, leader of the Democratic Party of
Vietnam Colonel Tran Anh Kim and prolific author Tran Khai Thanh
Freedom of Expression and the Press
11. (SBU) Several editors of Vietnam's leading newspapers have
been dismissed from their jobs this year as recrimination for
investigative reporting on a large-scale corruption scandal (known
locally as "PMU-18"). These actions followed the October 2008
conviction of the two reporters who broke the story. The official
mouthpieces of the Communist Party have not been immune from
censorship and retribution. The editor of the newspaper run by the
Vietnam Fatherland Front, the Communist Party's umbrella
organization of pro-government "mass organizations," was removed a
year ago, and the editor in chief of the Communist Party of
Vietnam's own website was recently fined $1,700 and formally
reprimanded for reprinting a Chinese newspaper article on China's
military exercises in the South China Sea.
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12. (SBU) The GVN is considering a new "Access to Information"
law, an effort to implement key provisions required under the
Convention Against Corruption. Unfortunately, the draft law falls
short, specifically in the area of implementation and enforcement.
Not surprisingly, it allows government agencies many "outs" in
denying requests for information. Nor does it spell out
implementing mechanisms or delineate agencies responsible for
releasing information. Similarly, last fall the National Assembly
considered and then shelved a new press law after concerns were
raised by many embassies regarding overly broad political demands
on journalists and editors, forced restructuring of media
organizations, and restrictions on press conferences. The draft
law also included troubling restrictions on electronic media.
Additionally, in October 2009 the Ministry of Information and
Communication circulated new draft press regulations that would
fine journalists who refuse to name sources or who write
"subjective" articles that "cause serious consequences."
13. (SBU) While Vietnam's blogosphere remains extremely vibrant
and diverse, the government has taken steps to restrict online
criticism. Steps include new restrictions regulating blog content,
and banning comments that could be perceived as political or
critical of the government. Thus far, there has been limited
enforcement of the new regulations. Since our last dialogue, the
government also convicted well known blogger "Dieu Cay" for tax
evasion and in August detained two well-known bloggers for ten days
for postings that were critical of GVN policies towards China and
their plans to print T-shirts critical of China. The two were
released only after they promised to stop blogging.
Civil Society
14. (SBU) The Party also has taken additional steps to restrict
the ability of civil society to voice opposition. Many foreign
NGOs that have operated in Vietnam for years are reporting
increasing scrutiny. The American Bar Association's application to
open an office in Vietnam (with a DRL grant) has languished for
more than two years, despite repeated interventions by the
Ambassador and other Embassy officers. The ABA and VLA have
submitted documentation in support of the ABA's registration
application, and a strong push during the dialogue could move the
process forward. "Decree 97", which prohibits independent
scientific/technical institutes from publicizing research critical
of the government or Party policies, achieved its immediate goals
when its target -- the reform-minded think tank the Institute for
Development Studies (IDS) -- closed its doors the day before the
decree took effect. The decree's long-term impact on stifling
other organizations and the larger civil society is unclear, but
our business, academic and civil society contacts fear the worst.
The Ambassador, in concert with other like-minded Ambassadors, sent
the Prime Minister two letters expressing our concerns about the
decree and its impact on civil society, scientific research,
education and foreign investment. The GVN has been at pains to
explain Decree 97, and has tasked the Minister of Science and
Technology to meet with concerned COMs on November 6 to explain the
new regulations.
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