Fixing the United States’ Human Rights Misstep With Vietnam

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By selling weapons to Vietnam, the United States is selling out activitsts
October 8, 2014

Torpedoes Don’t Kill People. Hanoi Kills People.

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Why we shouldn’t be selling arms to Vietnam.

OCTOBER 3, 2014

The Obama administration announced on Oct. 2 that it was relaxing a decades-old ban on sales of lethal military equipment to Vietnam. The United States will now allow the Pentagon and U.S. companies to provide Vietnam with “maritime security-related defense articles.” The move coincided with a visit to Washington by Deputy Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh — where he met with Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel — and came without much warning. This may have been intentional given the controversy surrounding it.

Looming over the decision is Vietnam’s exceedingly poor human rights record and Hanoi’s unwillingness to undertake basic reforms. Like China, its neighbor to the north, Vietnam has changed a great deal since the end of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam in the mid-1970s, when the arms embargo was first put in place: It is far wealthier, more integrated in the world economy, and it has relaxed state control over business. But as with China, the basic reality of its governance remains the same: It is a one-party, non-democratic state that imposes harsh limitations on basic rights and freedoms.

The U.S. government defends the policy change by claiming that maritime equipment cannot be used to stifle dissent. This argument misses the point. Of course, Hanoi won’t fire U.S.-made torpedoes at protesting crowds. Vietnam’s security forces don’t need complicated military equipment to quiet critics. When they arrest dissidents and bloggers, they just drive to protest sites, or people’s homes, and arrest them. Vietnam does not need to purchase firearms, batons, and tear gas from the United States at all — its security forces can purchase these inexpensive items in existing markets.

But the decision to start lethal arms sales undercuts the brave work of Vietnamese activists who expect the United States and other democracies to pressure the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam to end its systematic repression and engage in serious reform.

It sends a signal to Vietnam’s ruling party that they can choose to reform or not, and be treated the same either way.

That is not the kind of message Hanoi needs to hear.

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Washington (AFP) – In a decision likely to anger China, the US is partly lifting a 40-year ban on arms sales to former foe Vietnam to help boost defenses in the tense South China Sea.

The historic easing of the ban in place since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 will only apply to maritime equipment, State Department officials stressed, and comes amid warming ties and as Hanoi makes “modest” improvements to human rights.

“What’s driving this is not a sudden desire to transfer military equipment to Vietnam writ large, but a specific need in the region,” said one official, highlighting what he called Vietnam’s lack of capacity in the disputed waters and America’s own national security interests.

“It’s useful in trying to deal with the territorial disputes in the South China Sea to bolster the capacity of our friends in the region to maintain a maritime presence in some capacity.”

Some 40 percent of the world’s seaborne trade passes through the sea which is claimed in part by Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia, as well as China and the Philippines.

Although the United States has not taken sides in the territorial disputes, it has warned Beijing against “destabilizing actions” amid a series of tense maritime incidents.

Earlier this year, Beijing placed an oil rig in waters also claimed by Vietnam, sparking deadly riots in the Southeast Asian nation.

Secretary of State John Kerry informed his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Min during talks Thursday of Washington’s move to adjust the current policy “to allow the transfer of defense equipment, including lethal defense equipment, for maritime security purposes only,” a senior State Department official said.

Kerry later praised “the transformation” in Vietnam since the US normalized diplomatic relations two decades ago, calling it “nothing short of amazing.”

“Vietnam has become a modern nation and an important partner of the United States. And (when) we talk to the young people in Vietnam you can feel the enthusiasm for the potential of the future,” he told a US-ASEAN business council dinner.

- Not ‘anti-China’ -

A prohibition on sales of other kinds of lethal weapons, such as tanks, will stay in place as Washington pushes Hanoi to improve its human rights record.

“Vietnam will need to make additional progress on human rights for the United States to consider a full lift of the ban on lethal defense articles in the future,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.

US officials denied the policy change was “anti-China” and insisted they had no specific sales to outline so far, but would consider each request from Hanoi on a case-by-case basis.

And they sought to allay any concerns from Beijing, saying it was purely a defensive measure.

“We’re not talking about destabilizing systems, we’re talking about defensive capabilities… These are not things that are going to tip the regional balance,” a second State Department official said, also asking not to be named.

Any sales would be done in close consultation with the US Congress, and would be heavily focused on equipping the Vietnamese coast guard, the State Department officials said.

So far, Washington has only been allowed to sell unarmed patrol boats to the Vietnamese coastguard since a total ban on military sales was lifted in 2006. That could now change, for example, the officials said.

And they acknowledged that airborne defense systems would also be considered for sale if they included a maritime capacity.

“This policy supports Vietnam’s efforts to improve its maritime domain awareness and maritime security capabilities,” Psaki told reporters.

Officials said, however, that the easing of the ban did not mean all arms sales were now on the table to the communist-run authorities amid continuing concerns about rights such as freedom of expression and religion.

“It’s not an indication that we are going to provide all lethal assistance now. It just simply says we can remove what has been a hinderance to our ability to provide legitimate maritime capacity,” the second unnamed State Department official said.

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Assault on freedom of expression continues in Southeast Asia: Lao bans online criticism

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Communist Laos has issued a decree outlawing online criticism of policies of the ruling party or government, state media reported, the latest Southeast Asian country to enact strict internet controls.

According to legislation approved by Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong last week, web users will face criminal action for spreading “false” information aimed at discrediting the government, the official KPL news agency said.

It added users must also use their real names when setting up social media accounts.

Internet service providers could face action for making “available conditions” for any individual or group that had intentions of “tarnishing the party and government’s guidelines and policy”, KPL said.

The decree comes as cellphone and internet usage climbs in tandem with economic growth, a reduced poverty rate and greater electricity access in the country of 6.4 million people.

The new laws bear similarities to those of its Communist neighbour Vietnam, which commands strong influence over Laos and has a near identical political system.

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Vietnam: Pervasive Deaths, Injuries in Police Custody

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Urgent Need to End Abuses, Ensure Justice for Victims


Bangkok (16 September 2014) – Police throughout Vietnam abuse people in their custody, in some cases leading to death, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Vietnamese government should take immediate action to end suspicious deaths in custody and torture of detainees by police, Human Rights Watch said.

The 96-page report, “Public Insecurity: Deaths in Custody and Police Brutality in Vietnam,” highlights cases of police brutality that resulted in deaths and serious injuries of people in custody between August 2010 and July 2014. Human Rights Watch documented abuses in 44 of Vietnam’s 58 provinces, throughout the country, and in all five of the country’s major cities.

“Police severely abused people in custody in every region of Vietnam,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Vietnam government has a human rights crisis on its hands and should investigate and start holding abusive police accountable.”

The report draws on Human Rights Watch’s review of police abuse cases reported in government controlled Vietnamese-language newspapers, as well as reports from independent bloggers, citizen journalists, and foreign news agencies. Many of the accounts included in this report have never before been published in English. Human Rights Watch also conducted research in Vietnam for this report but decided to not interview victims and witnesses there because doing so would have exposed them to almost certain retaliation.

In many cases, those killed in police custody were being held for minor infractions. In an August 2012 case, police beat Nguyen Mau Thuan to death in Hanoi after arresting him less than three hours earlier in relation to a minor dispute in his neighborhood. In August 2010, police beat and tear gassed Le Phuc Hung to death in Gia Lai province while holding him for allegedly stealing water pipes.

Police frequently provided causes for these deaths that strained credulity and gave the appearance of systematic cover-ups. The police alleged that dozens of otherwise mentally and physically healthy people committed suicide by hanging or other methods. In other cases, only a vague and unconvincing explanation was given, as in the case of Nguyen Van Duc in Vinh Long province, who according to an autopsy died from a hematoma in the brain and other injuries. Police attributed his injuries to doctors who were “too hard with their hands” during emergency treatment. A surprisingly large number of people – many of them young and healthy in their 20s and 30s – allegedly died from medical problems in custody. Injuries in police custody are also reported frequently throughout the country.

A number of survivors said they were beaten to extract confessions, sometimes for crimes they maintained they did not commit. In July 2013, Soc Trang province police beat and forced six men to confess to a murder. Others said they were beaten for criticizing police officers or trying to reason with them. Victims of beatings also included children and people with mental disabilities.

Local media coverage of these incidents has been uneven, raising serious concerns about the negative impact of government control of the media. In some instances, media reports were extensive and detailed, exposing conflicting police statements and misconduct, such as in the case of Nguyen Cong Nhut, an alleged “suicide” who died in custody in April 2011 in Binh Duong province. On the other hand, there was no media coverage of other key cases, such as the death of Hoang Van Ngai, an ethnic Hmong, in March 2013 in Dak Nong province. Journalists reported that in some cases local authorities had prevented them from approaching the families of victims for interviews.

“Vietnam should permit the media to do its job of investigating and reporting the news about official abuses,” Robertson said. “Independent journalism could help expose abuses that otherwise would be swept under the carpet.”

Officers who commit serious, even lethal, transgressions rarely face serious consequences. In many cases in which abuses are officially acknowledged, police officers face only light internal disciplinary procedures, such as criticisms or warnings. Demotions, transfers, or dismissals of offending officers are rare, and prosecutions and convictions even rarer. Even when they are prosecuted and convicted, police officers tend to receive light or suspended sentences.

In one case, a police officer was even promoted after committing abuses. In July 2010, deputy chief Nguyen Huu Khoa of La Phu commune (Hoai Duc district, Hanoi) was accused of beating a truck driver named Nguyen Phu Son. It was unclear how the case was investigated and handled, but by December 2010, Nguyen Huu Khoa had been promoted to chief.

“Vietnam should promptly open an impartial investigation for every accusation of police brutality, and take strong action when the evidence reveals abuse,” Robertson said. “Until police get a loud and clear message from the top levels of government that abuse won’t be tolerated, there will be no security for ordinary people who fall into police hands,”

In several of the cases, Human Rights Watch found that police arrested people based on vague suspicions without supporting evidence, and then beat them to elicit confessions. Police also routinely ignored basic procedures to safeguard citizens against ill-treatment or arbitrary detention and prevented lawyers and legal consultants from gaining immediate access to their clients.

“All persons detained should be granted immediate and unhindered access to their lawyer in order to minimize possible police abuse during interrogation,” said Robertson.

The Vietnam government should immediately adopt a zero-tolerance policy for abuse by police, provide better training for police at all levels, particularly commune police, and install cameras in interrogation and detention facilities, Human Rights Watch said. The government also should facilitate the role of legal counsel for suspects and detainees and ensure freedom of expression for journalists and on the Internet.

The government should also form an independent police complaints commission to review and investigate all reported police abuse and misconduct and provide high-level support for prompt and impartial investigations and prosecutions of police abuse and misconduct.

“UN agencies and international donors assisting Vietnam establish the rule of law shouldn’t allow these punishing police practices to continue,” Robertson said. “There should be a concerted outcry to press for government action to end police abuses.”

“Public Insecurity: Deaths in Custody and Police Brutality in Vietnam” is available at:

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on Vietnam, please visit: