Arms ban lifted despite continuing repression

President Obama overlooked by Ho Chi Minh as he's greeted by President Tran Dai Quang. Picture courtesy AFP

President Obama overlooked by Ho Chi Minh as he’s greeted by President Tran Dai Quang. Picture courtesy AFP

President Obama has announced the full lifting of a ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam.

Speaking at a news conference in Hanoi, alongside the new Vietnamese president, Tran Dai Quang, he said the decision removed “a lingering vestige of the cold war”.

President Obama made the move despite what many observers see as a deteriorating human rights climate in Vietnam.

American officials have said previously that a final lifting of the arms ban, which was partially relaxed two years ago, was contingent on an improvement in Vietnam’s human rights record.

President Obama said the two countries had developed a level of trust and cooperation.

The move symbolises a developing strategic partnership between Hanoi and Washington as they seek to confront China’s growing belligerence in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

It will, however, disappoint some human rights campaigners and pro-democracy activists, who had hoped the US administration would use the weapons ban to leverage more concessions from Vietnam.

Some activists, however, are welcoming the lifting of the ban as a symbol of improving ties between Hanoi and Washington. They believe that actual sales of weapons, however, should not be approved without an easing of repression.

There has been little sign of that in recent months as the Communist party has tightened its grip on all the levers of government.

A BBC reporting team, in Vietnam to cover the visit, has been forbidden from continuing its work following allegations that it broke tight restrictions imposed on foreign reporters.

A Vietnamese-American activist, Nancy Nguyen, is also thought to remain in custody after being detained in the days before President Obama’s arrival.

Some one hundred political prisoners, including bloggers and human rights lawyers, remain in jail, while recent demonstrations over an environmental disaster in central Vietnam have been met with violence and arrests.

President Obama is planning to hold meetings with government critics and dissidents who were prevented from standing in recent elections for the rubber-stamp National Assembly.

Civil society activists are anxious for encouragement from an American president, who they look to as a source of restraint on the repressive impulses of the Communist authorities.

“He should start by calling for the right of all people to stand for election, voice critical views of government, associate with others, and freely choose candidates – something Vietnam’s current rulers have yet to allow,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director for Human Rights Watch.