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Obama Goes Gently on Human Rights With Sang

July 27, 2013

According to the New York Times, US President Barrack Obama meeting his Vietnamese counterpart Truong Tan Sang at the Oval Office on July 26 had “referred gently to the (human rights) abuses, saying: ‘All of us have to respect issues like freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly. And we had a very candid conversation about both the progress that Vietnam is making and the challenges that remain.'”

It is the gentle, inoffensive remarks about human rights abuses in other parts of the world, whether in China, Russia, Turkey, and yesterday in Vietnam, which make human rights activists and most decent people bristle. Given US’s foreign policy initiatives in Asia such as its ‘pivot’ and deep suspicion of China’s expanding tentacles in the region, that verbal non-aggression is the best form of engaging Vietnam is perhaps what Obama’s foreign policy advisors told him.
Another reason for Obama going gently on human rights is because the US is building TPP, or Trans-Pacific Partnership, with countries in the Southeast Asian region which would benefit immensely by the cheap labour in Vietnam.  
This was reflected in a report by Bloomberg (July 25): “The Obama administration, Bower said is seeking to balance human-rights concerns against signs of improvement and Vietnam’s role in the region.” “Ernest Bower, president of Fairfax, Virginia-based Bower Group Asia, which advises businesses on operating in Southeast Asia, said while there are legitimate concerns about human rights, U.S. labour unions also are, ‘threatened by the garment and textile industries’ in Vietnam. Bower said in the long run, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal being negotiated is more likely to boost total U.S. manufacturing,” reported Bloomberg.
Before the Obama-Sang meeting, number of rights organisations highlighted the attention of the US president to various shortcomings in Vietnam’s human rights regime. Of special concern to this blog is freedom of expression. Nineteen human rights monitors initialled a letter to Obama drawing attention to the detention of blogger and lawyer Le Quoc Quan. The letter said, “Given the great importance of international attention to the effort to secure Mr Quan’s freedom, and to enable him to return to his indispensable human rights work, we hope you will seize the opportunity of President Sang’s upcoming visit to request the immediate release of Mr Quan.” (The July 9 post on this blog details the trial of Le Quoc Quan)
Reporters without Borders (RSF) also circulated a public petition asking for the release of 35 bloggers are detained by the Vietnamese government including Le Quoc Quan.
“After the recent wave of arrests instigated by the Vietnamese Communist Party, we decided that our targeted support activities should be reinforced by a global support initiative, so that the fate of all these bloggers is not forgotten,” RSF said.
“We call for their immediate and unconditional release, the lifting of censorship and the repeal of the repressive laws that are used against bloggers and netizens, especially articles 88 and 79 of the criminal code.”
 Human Rights Watch’s statement prior to the meeting was stronger, “[t]he Obama administration should also be asking itself a more fundamental question: Should the United States continue to engage in business as usual with a government that criminalizes the act of calling for democracy, and shows no inclination toward reform?” it asked.
“It is clear that U.S. policy needs to change — the question is how. The United States needs to start linking its economic and other relations with Vietnam to specific human rights reforms. And the message on this should be clear and public,” said HRW.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.