President Barack Obama’s three day visit left a lasting and significant impact on the future of Vietnam. On the very first day of diplomatic engagements, the US President announced the lift on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam which had been in place for more than five decades, removing the last barrier in the normalisation process of bilateral relations between the two countries. Contrary to some news report from Vietnam, request to purchase US weapons would still be considered on a case by case basis and subject to conditions including human rights.
In June 2013, Vietnam’s then President Truong Tan Sang and Obama jointly issued a statement on the Comprehensive Partnership between the US and Vietnam, listing 9 areas of cooperation including the promotion and protection of human rights. Since then, Vietnam has ratified the United Nation’s Convention against Torture and in July 2014 allowed the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur Heiner Beilefeldt to visit and report on the status of freedom of religion in Vietnam.
In 2013, Vietnam issued a draft amendments to its 1992 Constitution. The 2013 Constitution upgraded human rights in terms of prominence to Chapter 2. Article 14 of the new Constitution provides that “human rights, citizen’s rights on political, civil, economic, cultural, social are recognised, respected, protected, guaranteed in accordance with the Constitution and may only be limited by laws and regulations to the extent necessary on the grounds of defence, national security, order, social safety, social well being and community health.”.
In 2015, Vietnam amended its Criminal Code reducing the application of the death penalty. Same sex marriage though not yet recognised will no longer be prosecuted.
Clearly, there has been some improvement and change at least in terms of the formal language but Vietnam is still essentially a police state and basic freedoms including freedom of religion, assembly and association are severely restricted. When Obama arrived, Vietnam was holding more than 100 prisoners of conscience according to a list compiled by Human Rights Watch. Just a few days before, hundreds of Vietnamese who took to the streets to raise their concerns about death fish and environmental disaster as well as demanding transparency and accountability from the authorities were harshly beaten by the police in disguised uniform. Even Facebook was stopped to prevent discussion about death fish.
In his speech at the National Convention Centre in My Dinh, President Obama clearly emphasised that the Vietnamese will decide their own future. Human rights provide the foundation for the country to develop to its full potential in terms of the economy, society, science and innovation. Basic human rights values are not just American values but universal and are specifically recognised in Vietnam’s own Constitution. The US would encourage but not force Vietnam to practice human rights protection.
On the International Human Rights Day in December 2008, the then President-elect Obama said: “When the United States turns up for human rights, we align ourselves with men and women around the world who struggle for the right to speak their minds and to choose their leaders. We also strengthen our security and well-being because the abuse of human rights can feed many of the global dangers that we confront – from armed conflict and humanitarian crisis, to corruption and the spread of ideologies that promote hatred and violence. So on this Human Right Day, let us rededicate ourselves to the advancement of human rights and freedom for all, and pledge always to live by the ideals we promote to the world”.
Nearly after 8 years as President, Obama’s human right ideals have been replaced by cold pragmatism. The United States have signed a nuclear agreement with Iran opening the way for the Islamic State to reintegrate into the international community. In return, Iran accepted measures to ensure that it will not build a nuclear bomb. Just in March this year, Obama arrived in Cuba to become the first US president to visit the communist neighbour in nearly a century, and closing the last chapter of the Cold War. The policy doctrine of containment and isolation has now been replaced by engagement and exchange based on national interest and not ideals or ideology. In a series of interviews with Jeffery Goldberg of The Atlantic, Obama saw the world today as “a tough, complicated, messy, mean place, and full of hardship and tragedy. And in order to advance both our security interest and those ideals and values that we care about, we have got to be hard headed at the same time as we are being big hearted and pick and choose our spots and recognise that there are going to be times that the best we can do is to shine a spotlight on something that is terrible, but not believe that we can automatically solve it”.
Clearly, Obama has done a “pivot” on human rights from an ideal that is worth protecting at any price as protecting the national security and interest to one of the many factors that have to be taken into account in formulating US foreign policy. This pragmatic approach is essentially a business transaction or in the words Ben Rhodes – Deputy National Security Advisor: “action for action”. This will present a significant challenge to the human rights movement particularly in Vietnam. It means that the US will not automatically support human rights for Vietnam unless there are some specific and direct benefit to the United States. Vietnam’s human rights movement should also reflect and if necessary make appropriate adjustments to the new pragmatic approach undertaken by the Obama’s administration. Otherwise, the movement may lose its effectiveness.
TPP presents a good opportunity. TPP is not just an economic agreement but also includes strategic factors necessary for the pivot or rebalancing to Asia – Pacific by the United States. TPP has three parts concerning human rights: Labour (Chapter 19), Environment (Chapter 20) and Transparency and Anti-Corruption (Chapter 26). In an interview with Tra Mi of VOA on 2/6/2016, Tom Malinowski – Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour confirmed that Vietnam will not enjoy any TPP benefits until it changes its labour laws in accordance with ILO standards and allow free unions to be established. This is not because of any ideals but primarily due to the US’s primary interest to create a market with fair competition rules so that US workers will not lose their jobs to foreign countries. In addition to TPP, Vietnam also signed a number of bilateral agreements with the United States covering labour rights requiring Vietnam to stop compulsory labour with respect to prisoners. More importantly, Vietnam will allow union federations to be established in 5 years once TPP comes into effect. Otherwise, the US can impose penalty by levying tariffs at the pre-TPP level or suspend any benefit under TPP. However, these measures do not automatically result as any US’s decisions will be based on other factors including diplomatic, economic or strategic. Under bilateral agreements, an Expert Labour Panel will be established comprising of representatives from Vietnam and the US under the chair of an ILO representative to monitor compliance by Vietnam. Malinowski also indicated that the US are currently assisting Vietnam with law reform in order to establish independent business associations and unions.
The greatest challenge with Vietnam has always been what is happening on the ground. Vietnam’s Constitution clearly provides that its citizens enjoy full protection of human rights including freedom of expression, freedom of information, freedom of religion, assembly and freedom of association. In reality, the State never really or seriously respects or guarantees human rights protection. Labour rights only form a part of human rights which include all civil and political rights as well as economic and social rights and are defined as inalienable and indivisible. Vietnam will never fulfil its potential with half-hearted and forced efforts to protect human rights. President Obama’s speech in My Dinh was enthusiastically endorsed by the majority of the Vietnamese. But there are some who feel “discomfort” such as the Chinese leaders in Beijing and a number of Politburo members of the Vietnamese Communist Party in Ba Dinh. As such, every Vietnamese should clearly recognise the character of the struggle for human rights in Vietnam. On the one hand, every Vietnamese would wish to build a developed country, prosperous, civilised and advanced with sufficient strength and capacity to protect its sovereignty and maritime borders. On the other side are those who seek to maintain its monopoly on power for the benefit of the Communist Party and its leaders. Only when the majority of the Vietnamese join the struggle then Vietnam would have any hope of a better future just as President Obama correctly pointed out: “Vietnam’s future will be decided by the Vietnamese themselves”.