Vietnam: How Far Should U.S Push Rights Issue?


Washington. -- President Clinton appears to have dropped back from another campaign position in the move to normalize relations with the government of Vietnam.

As a candidate last October, Mr. Clinton promised his administration would "strongly support the aspirations of the Vietnamese people for human rights, and for freedom and democracy in Vietnam."

"Unlike President Bush, it is my firm belief that the issue of human rights should be part of the discussion when addressing the issue of normalization with Vietnam," he wrote to Quan Quoc Nguyen, an Annandale, Va., internist whose brother is among the most prominent of Vietnamese political prisoners.

But in his 2 1/2 -page statement July 2 removing a barrier to new International Monetary Fund financing for Vietnam, the issue got only a passing mention. In the penultimate paragraph, Mr. Clinton said a team he is dispatching "will also raise with the Vietnamese continuing human rights concerns and press for progress in the areas of basic freedoms, democracy and economic reform."

Improved human rights was not among the four areas of "tangible progress" he demanded before advancing relations further. The four areas all dealt with Vietnamese cooperation in resolving outstanding POW and MIA issues.

The president's statement is the latest indication of how human rights has been submerged in the debate over normalization of relations with Vietnam. The issue is overwhelmed by powerful political pressures coming from two directions: families searching for evidence of soldiers missing or held prisoner after the war and American businesses eager to grab emerging opportunities as Vietnam opens its state-controlled economy to foreign investment.

Mr. Clinton's muted stance raises the additional irony that his administration has said it wants to make human rights and progress toward democracy a pillar of its foreign policy. His policy also contrasts with the administration's tougher human rights stand toward two other communist dictatorships: China and Cuba.

Critics say the subordination of human rights obscures an American obligation with respect to Vietnam and passes up an opportunity to exert leverage that would ease the plight of the Vietnamese people.

By most accounts, the Hanoi regime has relaxed its grip on the population since the immediate aftermath of the war, when it dispatched hundreds of thousands of officials and others connected with the former South Vietnamese government to "re-education" camps. Estimates of those who died range as high as 65,000.

But conditions remain grim in the one- The State Department's human rights report cites "severe restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association."

party state. The State Department's latest annual human rights report cites "severe restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association, on worker rights, and on the right of citizens to change their government."

Beatings and ill treatment "are still a feature of police investigations," the report says. Vietnam continues arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. Intellectuals, clergy, journalists and some foreigners have been arrested and detained in security crackdowns.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been resettled over the years into New Economic Zones, in part to isolate people the government distrusts. Family members of former South Vietnamese government and military officials and people affiliated with anti-communist organizations and religious sects "have been systematically discriminated against," the State Department says.

Stephen Denney, editor of Vietnam Journal, a newsletter on Vietnamese human rights, says an article in the government-controlled press acknowledged the arrest between 1989 and the end of 1991 of more than 15,000 people attempting to flee southern Vietnam.

In a report this month, Amnesty International cited the arrest of two Buddhist monks, apparently for possession of documents criticizing the government's treatment of Buddhist monks and nuns.

Another group, Human Rights Watch, says in its latest report that despite positive developments, "the government continued to arrest, detain and sentence individuals for nonviolent dissent, to hold prisoners in conditions that threatened their health and safety, to censor writers and to repressively control religious institutions."

Among people facing harshest treatment are those seeking to form opposition political parties or demanding political reforms.

One of them is Dr. Nguyen's brother, Nguyen Dan Que, 50.

Imprisoned without trial from 1978 to 1988, he was arrested again in 1990 for signing a petition calling on the Communist Party to "respect the human, civil and property rights of the people" and to adopt a pluralistic political system. Without being represented by a lawyer or allowed to speak in his own defense, he was sentenced to 20 years in jail and 5 years' house arrest for "subversion."

Possibly as a result of pressure from politicians and others in the United States, Dr. Que has been removed from forced labor and allowed periodic visits from family members, according to his brother.

By not stressing human rights progress as a condition for improved relations with the United States, the Clinton administration is following a frequent pattern in American foreign policy of not allowing the issue to get in the way of overriding American interests.

In the case of Vietnam, the dominant American interest has been twofold: to get Vietnam's cooperation in a Cambodia settlement and to obtain as complete as possiblean accounting of missing Americans from the Vietnam war era.

The POW-MIA issue, propelled by a politically potent lobby and strong emotional currents, is particularly sensitive politically for Mr. Clinton, who avoided the draft during the war.

Neither Amnesty International nor Human Rights Watch demands that human rights be made a condition for normalized relations. Even congressional critics of the administration argue that imposing a new condition now, after Vietnam has made strides to fulfill previously agreed-on commitments, would amount to "moving the goal posts" on Hanoi.

The administration insists, as well, that human rights will get a prominent mention in official contacts. "It is part of our discussion with Vietnam as with everybody else," a State Department official says. "It's part of a broad fabric of relations. It has an effect on the quality of our relations with anyone."

Mr. Clinton, during the campaign and since, has raised expectations of a more forceful human rights stance. At a recent United Nations conference on human rights in Vienna, the United States mobilized a coalition to combat the idea advanced by Asian dictatorships that Western human rights ideals are culturally biased.

Dr. Cue, who testified Wednesday July 20 before a Senate panel chaired by Sen. Charles S. Robb, the Virginia Democrat, says the United States should insist that a lifting of the trade embargo go "hand in hand" with freedom for the Vietnamese people, including free, multiparty elections. A freer Vietnam would also make U.S. investments more secure, he argues, since the economy there is currently plagued by mismanagement and corruption.

James H. Webb Jr., a former Navy secretary and, like Senator Robb, a Marine veteran of Vietnam, says the United States has a unique obligation to ensure that Vietnamese who supported the American presence not be denied the prosperity that comes from future American investment -- precisely the people the present government of Vietnam has punished in many cases.

"There should be a specific guarantee that people who were allied with us on the battlefield and their families have equal access to the benefits of this new relationship," he says. "We should ask for this and have a way to measure compliance. It's not an 'internal' matter when the condition of these people directly relates to their past cooperation with us."

Demand for a tougher human-rights posture toward Vietnam is reverberating among others on Capitol Hill. Two influential senators, Arizona Republican John S. McCain, a former prisoner of war, and Nebraska Democrat Bob Kerrey, a decorated veteran, say the United States should be doing more.

Mr. Kerrey, who has discussed Vietnam policy with the president and several of his top advisers, says Mr. Clinton's policy is still being formulated and may get stronger.

While avoiding imposing new conditions now, Mr. Kerrey advocates sending a "human rights reconciliation group" to Vietnam and linking future favorable trade relations to improvements.

Having "fought a war over freedom," America should not return to Vietnam solely out of economic prospects, but make normalization "a big, proud victory celebration," he said in a telephone interview.

An increased U.S. emphasis on human rights draws no objection from the key POW-MIA lobbying group, although it doesn't consider the issue directly within its mandate.

"As individual Americans and human beings in a democratic society, certainly we have concerns," said Ann Mills Griffiths of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia.

Human rights specialists say that given Vietnam's difficult economic straits following the collapse of its chief patron, the Soviet Union, a strong American stance would have an impact. "The Vietnamese government is very responsive to any kind of pressure from the U.S. on human rights," Mr. Denney said. "They're conscious of the fact that they're becoming isolated in maintaining this kind of political system."

Christopher on U.S. Goals

At a press conference Wednesday, Secretary of State Warren Christopher was asked about normalization of relations with Vietnam. Here is some of what Mr. Christopher said:

The main focus of my meeting will be to follow up on Winston Lord's visit together with a top administration team to Vietnam. His purpose there was to urge the Vietnamese to respond to the gesture we had made by better performance with respect to information on POWs and MIAs.

That will be the focus of my meeting with the Vietnamese foreign minister. That's what's driving our policy.

Mark Matthews is the diplomatic correspondent in the Washington bureau of The Baltimore Sun.

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