House Panel to Probe Vietnamese Rights Concerns

Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Tuesday, November 6, 2007

House Panel to Probe Vietnamese Rights Concerns

( - Vietnam's communist government, which over the past year achieved its aims of securing normalized trade relations with the U.S. and being removed from a religious persecution blacklist, continues to abuse human rights, U.S. lawmakers will be told on Tuesday.

Rights campaigners and Vietnamese-American activists will testify before a House Foreign Affairs Committee subcommittee hearing on "human rights concerns in Vietnam."

The House last September passed a bill making future increases in non-humanitarian aid to Hanoi contingent on improvements in its human rights record. The legislation is now before the Senate.

Since Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last November removed Vietnam from a list of "countries of particular concern" (CPC) for severe religious freedom abuses, campaigners have been urging the administration to reverse the step, charging that violations have increased this year.

Among organizations to have made that call are the People's Democratic Party, an exiled group banned inside Vietnam, and Viet Tan, another underground opposition party.

Representatives of both groups are scheduled to address the subcommittee on international organizations, human rights, and oversight on Tuesday, together with a State Department official, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Southeast Asia Scott Marciel.

Viet Tan representative Duy Hoang said late Monday that in his testimony he will stress that "abuses will continue unless there is genuine political change." He will also argue that Vietnam should be returned to the CPC list because of ongoing violations of religious freedom.

CPC designation under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) provides for the use of sanctions or other measures to prod foreign governments to respect citizens' freedom to worship.

Hoang said there is a debate underway within the State Department over what constitutes religious freedom.

"One view has it that religious freedom can be narrowly measured by the ordinances on religion issued by the Vietnamese authorities or the number of religious entities allowed to 'register' with the government and thus legally operate," he said.

"Many of us hold that respect for religious freedom is what occurs in practice, not what a communist government pledges on paper. Moreover, true religious freedom is when people can practice their faith without first registering with the authorities."

The State Department's ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, John Hanford, earlier this year said Vietnam was an example of a success-story in U.S. efforts to engage foreign governments on religious freedom -- a key aim of the IRFA. He also acknowledged that progress had slowed, however.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent panel set up under the IRFA to make recommendations to Congress and the White House, previously recommended that Vietnam be redesignated as a CPC.

Commission members returned Friday from a 10-day visit to the country, and are expected shortly to report on their latest findings.

In a statement issued during their visit, commission members said they asked top officials "to undertake full, impartial, and effective investigations into reported police abuses, including continued reports of forced renunciations of religion."

They also called for the release of imprisoned advocates for religious freedom and raised the issue of restrictions and abuses against Vietnamese Buddhists.

Others taking part in Tuesday's hearing include Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), the primary sponsor of the Vietnam Human Rights Act that passed by a 414-3 vote in September, and co-sponsors Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Loretta Sanchez, both California Democrats.

The subcommittee's eight members include two other co-sponsors of the bill, Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and Donald Payne (D-N.J.), as well as two of the only three lawmakers to have voted against it, Reps. Ron Paul of Texas and Jeff Flake of Arizona, both Republicans.

Hoang said in his testimony he will appeal to lawmakers to urge their colleagues in the Senate to support the legislation.

A similar bill, also introduced by Smith and passed by a 410-1 vote in the House in 2001, was blocked in the Senate by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the then chairman of a Senate East Asian and Pacific Affairs subcommittee, who argued that denying aid to Hanoi would be counterproductive.

Hoang said a key factor in how the legislation fares in the Senate this time may be how the Vietnamese government responds to growing protests by farmers demonstrating against corruption and land seizures.

"If Hanoi chooses to crack down that would likely tip the Senate toward passing the Vietnam Human Rights Act," he said.

According to Human Rights Watch, Vietnamese farmers' protests have come in reaction to the expropriation by officials of farmland without compensation.

In a move supporters said would help encourage Vietnam to step up economic and political reforms, Congress late last year voted to normalize trade relations with Vietnam, ahead of Hanoi's accession to the World Trade Organization in January.

Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez this week is heading a mission of American business representatives to Vietnam, looking to expand bilateral trade ties and boost U.S. export opportunities.

Also see:
Move to Normalize Trade Ties With Vietnam Praised, Condemned (Dec. 12, 2006)

Make media inquiries or request an interview about this article.