Eighteen years ago, the United States Congress designated May 11 as Vietnam Human Rights Day to highlight our nation’s support for protecting and promoting basic freedoms in Vietnam. A ceremony and discussion forum will be held at the U.S. Capitol May 10 to mark the occasion, involving members of Congress, labor leaders, non-governmental groups and representatives from Vietnamese communities across America.
The date marks one of the most prominent episodes in domestic advocacy of human rights in Vietnam. On May 11, 1990, a Vietnamese physician, Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, and other activists published a “Manifesto for the Non-Violent Movement for Human Rights in Vietnam.” The document called for peaceful advocacy against repression and called on the government to respect basic human rights, accept a multi-party political system and allow free and fair national elections. While their protest was a peaceful and largely symbolic one, Dr. Que and his fellow advocates were arrested and convicted of crimes against the state. The doctor has been under virtual house arrest since 2005.
Nor is he alone. Under vaguely worded laws enacted to protect state security, authorities have arrested and detained many peaceful political, religious and civil society activists for allegedly sowing division between the communist government and the Vietnamese people. New measures have been imposed to limit citizens’ privacy rights and freedom of the press, speech, assembly, movement and association.
The United States and Vietnam have made great strides in normalizing relations and expanding trade, and economic growth has brought great improvement to the daily lives of many Vietnamese. But the Hanoi government's record on human rights has not matched its economic progress. While religious freedom did improve several years ago, it appears to have stopped there and a backsliding has occurred on respect for basic freedoms, in an effort to suppress what the government views as criticism of it and the Communist Party.
For the U.S. Government, respect for human rights is an integral aspect of the bilateral relationship that cannot be separated out from an otherwise flourishing relationship with Vietnam. U.S. officials routinely make the point that America supports a strong Vietnam, and that if the government in Hanoi gives a greater say to its people, it will only make the country stronger. .