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U.S. Sends Mixed Messages about Human Rights in Vietnam

Crowds show support for visiting U.S. President Barack Obama in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam on May 24, 2016. While Obama spoke of the need for Vietnam to improve its human rights record, lifting of an arms embargo showed there are other considerations in play. Photo credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster via

Crowds show support for visiting U.S. President Barack Obama in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam on May 24, 2016. (AP/Carolyn Kaster via

Barack Obama’s visit to Vietnam last week certainly carries symbolic weight, and will likely succeed in improving and expanding relations between the two former enemies. Yet many are seriously concerned that increased cooperation between the U.S. and Vietnam will result in theVietnamese government getting a pass on human rights violations, despite Obama’s promises that it will be held accountable.

After meeting with civic activists and community leaders in Vietnam’s capital of Hanoi on May 24, 2016, Obama stated that “Vietnam has made remarkable strides in many ways—the economy is growing quickly, the Internet is booming and there’s a growing confidence here.” Then he pointed out, “There are still areas of significant concern in terms of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, accountability with respect to government.”

Many would praise Obama for calling out Vietnam on human rights in a public address. But his statement was undercut by the absence of several leading critics of the communist regime from the civic meeting. A Vietnamese lawyer who did attend the session posted a photo of the meeting, held at the U.S. embassy, with the caption “Why the empty chairs?” Apparently those chairs were expected to be filled by some conspicuously missing activists.

Notable government critic Nguyen Quang A told Reuters that he had been “picked up” by security personnel the morning of Obama’s visit. Without being provided an explanation, the officers drove Quang A 40 miles away, then returned him to the city in the afternoon—conveniently after the meeting with Obama had ended.

This suspicious activity follows on the heals of a curiously-timed crackdown on significant protests in Vietnam over the recent littering of the coastline with dead fish. Many in the country, including state media, are blaming this crisis on industrial and manufacturing facilities dumping toxic waste and chemicals into the ocean. Surprisingly, the government tends to allow protests to take place when they concern environment issues, though only to a point.

Based on multiple reports, serious questions remain about Vietnam’s commitment to upholding human rights. Yet on May 23, Obama announced the U.S. would be lifting its arms embargo against Vietnam. This move is widely viewed as geostrategic, intended to counter aggressive moves by China in the nearby South China Sea (though Obama publicly denied this).

Is Obama hoping people will believe what he—and by extension the United States government—says, not what he does, concerning Vietnam’s human rights violations? Human Rights Watch Asia policy chief John Sifton summarizes the situation well in saying “President Obama rewarded Vietnam even though its government has done little to earn it: It has not repealed any repressive laws, nor released any significant number of political prisoners, nor made any substantial pledges.”

This is not the first and likely will not be the last time the United States pays lip service to human rights violations while pursuing other interests it believes to be vital. Sometimes it seems upholding human rights is a priority…until something else becomes a bigger priority. There is no doubt that a strong and stable Vietnam could turn into an important check on worrisome Chinese activity in the region. But is this enough to essentially give Vietnam’s government a pass on seriously concerning human rights violations and suppression of critics of the regime?

As stronger economic ties emerge, it would be encouraging to see the U.S. government actively monitor the freedoms and accountability Obama talked about. If these do not come to fruition in Vietnam some kind of penalty, whether through economic sanctions or another measure, should be imposed. This would reinforce Obama’s words with actions, and show that the United States expects its trading partners to respect and protect the rights of their citizens.

Too much emphasis placed either on human rights or balance of power will receive criticism from the side not getting what it wants. A balance must be achieved to show that it is possible to see improvement with both.



Scott Bleiweis

Scott Bleiweis writes on international relations topics for FPA. He has a M.A. in democracy studies and conflict resolution from the University of Denver, and a B.A. in Politics/International Studies from Brandeis University. Scott was formerly a Fulbright education scholar in Bulgaria (views in this blog are his own, and do not represent those of the Fulbright organization or U.S. government).

Scott supports Winston Churchill's characterization of the complex form of government known as democracy: “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”