Senior United States officials have told activists in Hanoi that they will put increasing emphasis on human rights as relations between Washington and Hanoi develop.
In a meeting with independent bloggers and other government critics, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, Tom Malinowski, said he was under no illusions about the attitude of the Vietnamese government.
But he said the US would continue to press for more freedom of expression and would use the negotiations for the proposed Trans- Pacific Partnership or TPP to further its case.
“We are very realistic about this. I’m not certain that our strategy will work. Because we talk to you and other activists, we know what happens,” he said in a meeting at the US embassy while the Secretary of State, John Kerry, was holding talks with top officials.
“We know that on the last day of my recent human rights dialogue trip, the blogger Anh Chi was beaten up because he tried to save the trees in Hanoi.”
Mr Malinowski said the government had told the visiting Americans at the time that it was taking the views of activists into account.
“But we know what happened. So you see, we have no illusions about this. It’s going to be very difficult and we may not succeed. But we think we have a chance to take some steps forward and when we succeed in taking some steps forward, you will be able to take more.”
Mr Kerry made clear during his talks in Vietnam that real progress was needed on human rights before the US would further relax its ban on the sale of weapons to Vietnam.
Some sales were allowed for the Vietnamese coastguard last year but Mr Kerry said that only an improvement in the political climate in Vietnam would lead to a deeper and more sustainable partnership with Washington.
Mr Malinowski had also met activists in Ho Chi Minh City despite attempts by the authorities to stop some attending. They included representatives of independent religious groups.
He said that a TPP agreement was getting closer but it would not be made too easy for the Vietnamese government.
“We want to show the government of Vietnam that they have to work for the TPP, and they will have to work for the TPP because when the treaty is presented to our Congress, many members will be asking questions about human rights in Vietnam.”
Mr Malinowski said the aim was to convince the Vietnamese government that its future lay in better relations to the US.
“We want to encourage them to feel comfortable in that kind of partnership, which includes many factors, including our advocacy for human rights and democracy. So having the General Secretary in Washington was a way of making them comfortable about the future, a way we hope of managing the fear of change. Because I think they are more afraid of you than you are afraid of them. We are finding a way to manage that fear.”
He said leaders in less democratic systems tended to fear change more and they became insecure when they were not popular and began to fear revolutions and coups.
“At the same time, changes happen. You have thousands of people reading your blog, right? There are grassroots campaigns that people are involved in. Millions of people are on Facebook. Workers are going on strike. And so I think they are also afraid of getting left behind. I think they are caught between two different kinds of fear, and what we need to do is to encourage them to feel more secure in embracing that change.”
The US Ambassador Ted Osius was also present at the meeting.
He said embassy officials would maintain close contact with activists to monitor progress.
“You know if we only talked to the government then we would eventually think everything was fine.”
“So one way we monitor is to stay in very close contact with activists, lawyers, journalists and bloggers throughout the country.”
“Now some of these obligations will be more formal especially those related to labour. Those we’ll take particular care of in monitoring and there may be some mechanisms in TPP that will help us monitor the compliance,” he said.
Ambassador Osius said that the embassy had full time staff devoted to human rights and would continue to be vigilant.
The blogger, Anh Chi, said that they did not want to set up groups that were under the control of the government and wanted to focus on the right to freedom of association.
Mr Malinowski said they were looking very closely at the law of association and that the first draft produced by the government did not look very good.
“In some way it resembles the Chinese law. Unfortunately it looks like the process of reviewing and adopting that law will take some months until next year. We will engage the government to try to change the draft so they allow as great as possible freedom of association.”
“The Association Law is not just the US urging the Vietnamese government to improve that law. It’s also 15 other countries. So we have active engagement, not just us but also 15 other countries,” said the Mr Osius.
“But we have ongoing courses on the TPP, the highest level discussions about how Vietnam will implement the international commitment to freedom of association. I think we see the possibility of some real changes as a result of the TPP negotiation,” he said.
However Mr Malinowski stressed the US negotiators had to be realistic and there was a line that could not be crossed over the freedom to organise labour unions.
“When we talk about freedom of association for labour unions to link up to each other and link up internationally, that’s an international standard that Vietnam, I think, will be able to comply with. What concerns Vietnam is when the line is crossed and it becomes an effort to change the government. And in our negotiations we have to be respectful of those concerns because once it amounts to a change of the government, no government will go along with the plan that means there will be change.”