Tags: Barack Obama | Obama | Vietnam | Human Rights

Obama Turns Attention to Rights in Vietnam After Lifting Embargo

Obama Turns Attention to Rights in Vietnam After Lifting Embargo
 (AP)

Tuesday, 24 May 2016 07:41 AM

A day after saying Vietnam had made enough progress on human rights to merit lifting a decades-old U.S. ban on arms sales, President Barack Obama pushed back against his host country over its human rights record.

Obama met Tuesday with a small group of civil society leaders in Hanoi before delivering a speech aimed at the Vietnamese people. On Monday, his first of three days in the country, he held a series of one-on-one meetings with government leaders.

"There’s still areas of significant concerns in terms of areas of free speech, freedom of assembly, accountability with respect to government," Obama said Tuesday at a hotel in Hanoi, noting that Vietnam barred some people invited to the meeting by the U.S.

Obama often uses visits to countries with poor human rights records as an opportunity to raise the topic publicly and privately. He tangled with Cuban President Raul Castro in March in Havana with both countries criticizing the other for their records on rights and equality. Obama took a question about human rights on Monday at a joint press conference with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang, saying the two countries "still have differences."

Quang said Vietnam has made progress on human rights and pointed to the country's membership on the United Nations Human Rights Council. Without pledging any changes, he told reporters that “we can narrow the gap in understanding and narrow the differences between the countries, especially on human rights.”

Vietnam has been a leader in Southeast Asia on gay marriage, abolishing the ban on same-sex marriage last year.

Obama's lifting of the arms embargo doesn’t preclude human rights from coming into play if Vietnam requests certain weapons, said Tuong Vu, an associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon. "Obama made clear Vietnam will still have to improve human rights to get any weapon sales approved."

Rising Dissent

Obama's visit coincides with a rise in dissent and rare public protests in the country. In recent weeks, Vietnamese have taken to the streets in the thousands over the deaths of millions of fish near Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corp., a unit of Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics Corp., located in central Vietnam. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc ordered an investigation into how the steel plant received approval to pipe waste water directly into the sea.

Police used force to break up demonstrations on May 8 and were able to ensure no major street protests occurred immediately before Obama arrived Sunday night. Central Ho Chi Minh City was full of security and police barricades, and known dissidents were blocked from leaving their homes.

More than 100 dissidents are detained in Vietnam, according to Human Rights Watch. U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius criticized "harassment and detentions of peaceful human rights advocates" in an e-mailed statement Dec. 29. "This disturbing trend, at this time, threatens to overshadow Vietnam’s progress on human rights in recent years," he said.

The day before Obama left for Hanoi, the government released Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly, a Roman Catholic priest and dissident who’s spent much of the past two decades in prison and who was on the rights group’s list of political prisoners. 

'Peaceful Activists'

Amnesty International called on Obama to insist on the release of political prisoners in Vietnam, saying six "peaceful activists" have been arrested in recent days in spite of his visit.

"Even as it faces the glare of global attention with the U.S. president's visit, the Vietnamese authorities, shamefully, are carrying out their repressive business as usual," Rafendi Djamin, Amnesty International’s director for South East Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement.

The Communist Party held elections hours before Obama arrived on Sunday. At a time of rising frustration with the one-party political system, it this year approved the lowest number of independent candidates for National Assembly elections in nearly 20 years.

While 162 people initially nominated themselves to stand for parliament, only 11 made it through a short-listing process to the final list of 870 vying for 500 seats. News reports in Vietnam said nearly 100 percent of Vietnamese turned out for the elections.

Union Rights

Obama has said he hopes Vietnam's membership in the the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact will spur rights improvements. As part of the agreement's negotiations, Vietnam agreed to allow for independent unions, though it has five years to fully implement the policy.

It's unclear how Vietnam will facilitate the independent groups, said Le Hong Hiep, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

"What they want to make sure of is that these independent unions focus on the economic well-being of the workers and not be taken advantage of by activists for political purposes," he said. "That would be a red line and the government would take action."

During his trip to Vietnam, Obama is highlighting some concessions made by the Communist government. In Ho Chi Minh City, he plans to visit Fulbright University Vietnam, which will be a campus independent of the Vietnamese government. The two countries also announced the U.S. Peace Corps will be allowed to come to the Southeast Asian country, a group long viewed as a “subversive force” that could undermine the nation, Hiep said.

"There have been concessions that will nurture the growth of the civil society gradually," he said. "I think for now and in the near future, the U.S. may prioritize strategic issues over human rights."

 

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A day after saying Vietnam had made enough progress on human rights to merit lifting a decades-old U.S. ban on arms sales, President Barack Obama pushed back against his host country over its human rights record. Obama met Tuesday with a small group of civil society leaders...
Obama, Vietnam, Human Rights
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2016-41-24
Tuesday, 24 May 2016 07:41 AM
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