Secretary Clinton struck out on Vietnam
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to the "Historical Conference on the American Experience in Southeast Asia" in Washington. The focus was the Vietnam War, with State Department historians having completed, in the Secretary's words, "an exhaustive history of United States policy regarding Southeast Asia from 1946 until 1975," when Saigon fell. Especially with the Vietnamese Ambassador in the audience, our top diplomat had an obligation to raise human rights concerns, however diplomatically. The Secretary struck out.
I wasn't there, but I read the Secretary's remarks. From trips as both First Lady and Secretary of State, she knows Vietnam, and her passion for the country comes through. She commented on how the world suffers too many conflicts in which people can't let go of the past. She's right, and the U.S. and Vietnam have managed to work together on several issues since diplomatic normalization 15 years ago. Trade is up. And the Secretary spoke passionately about the continued cooperation to return the remains of U.S. servicemen lost in combat.
But there is more to the Vietnam story --its ugly human rights record. The withdrawal of U.S. troops led to the massacre and exodus of millions of Vietnamese, those the victorious North deemed enemies of its Marxist movement. Some forced to flee found a home in the U.S., including many in my district. Still today, Vietnamese seeking political and religious freedom are systematically persecuted and abused, often beaten and jailed. The State Department human rights report cites increasing government squashing of dissent. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam remains a one-party state --and acts like it.
That's why I've introduced legislation calling on the State Department to label Vietnam a "Country of Particular Concern" for its religious persecution, which would impose mild sanctions. Vietnam had been on the list until 2006. This measure passed the Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously as an amendment. The yearly CPC determination, which has targeted China, Burma and others, will soon be issued. I don't have much hope that Secretary Clinton will put Vietnam back on the list, especially after Wednesday.
The Secretary spoke on Vietnam at some length, celebrating the "breathtaking" progress in the U.S.-Vietnam relationship. No mention of human rights. She spoke only the mildest discordant note: "We will not agree on everything," immediately diluted by, "We will have different political systems." For someone who supposedly thinks U.S. values should be at the center of U.S foreign policy, that's a bit of a stunner. Sorry to say, it smacks of moral equivalence. Couldn't she muster just a "Americans regret that Vietnamese don't enjoy internationally recognized human rights." I don't think Vietnam's Ambassador would have stormed out of the room.
The State Department will maintain that promoting human rights in Vietnam is a priority. Diplomats and bureaucrats have told me and other concerned colleagues that many times over. But really. The Secretary sets the tone. What did she message to the Vietnamese ambassador? How serious is his government going to take the protests of our Ambassador in Hanoi, should he even make any? Many, many brave Vietnamese fighting for freedom deserve better.
Royce is a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and is an active member of the Congressional Caucus on Vietnam.