Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at Media Roundtable in Hanoi

Photo of Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski
Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at Media Roundtable in Hanoi

Media Roundtable Transcript

Assistant Secretary Malinowski:  Thanks.  Let me say a few words about the human rights dialogue, but also the bigger issues that are in play right now.

We came over here with a very big interagency delegation.  It included folks from USTR, from the White House, from the State Department, and USAID for our annual human rights dialogue with a wide range of officials from the Vietnamese government.

The formal dialogue covered most of the key human rights, rule of law issues that we have been engaged with the Vietnamese government on for some time.  So there were focused sessions on legal reform, on freedom of expression, labor rights, disability rights, and freedom of religion.

We also had separate meetings with senior Vietnamese government officials, including Vice Foreign Minister Ngoc and the Vice Minister of the Ministry of Public Security To Lam.

Outside of the formal dialogue we visited a prison, Nam Ha Prison, outside of Hanoi.  We met with two of the prisoners of conscience about whom we have been concerned: Father Ly and Le Van Son.

We spent the weekend in the northwest highlands.  We met with Catholic, Buddhist, Protestant community leaders and looked at the situation for religious and ethnic minorities in that part of the country.

And in a less serious, but still symbolically important highlight, we took a group of folks, including a couple of Foreign Ministry officials, to climb the highest mountain in Vietnam, and we’re proud to have done it in one day.

So, a few words about our assessment of the situation.  In our view, Vietnam has made progress on human rights, especially in the last couple of years.  The number of prisoners of conscience is down, by our count, from over 160 in 2013 to just over 100 today.  In a very important, though I would stress very fragile, development, we have seen virtually no prosecutions for peaceful political activism or expression this year.  This is something that we have stressed in our conversations with our Vietnamese counterparts as they conduct a review of their criminal code and other laws: that there be restraint in the application of existing laws as that process continues.

It’s also very important that a process of legal reform has begun.  The government has committed to bringing its laws, its policies, its actions into compliance with international standards and with its own constitution.  It has also subscribed to a growing number of international standards, including by ratifying the Convention against Torture and the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.

In doing these things, the Vietnamese government is responding to demands coming from within its own society.  But clearly another important factor is the government’s desire for international integration, including its desire to join TPP.  Without the prospect of joining TPP and without the prospect of broader international integration, prospects for continued human rights progress in Vietnam, I’m afraid, would be far more dim.

At the same time, we have no illusions about how difficult that progress has been and how incomplete it remains.  Civil society activists, bloggers, independent journalists, other critics of the government still too often face harassment, threats, and even violence for exercising what are their internationally recognized human rights.  And there are still far too many restrictions on the ability of everyone, from civil society organizations to religious communities, in terms of exercising their day-to-day activities.

What we see in Vietnam is a people and a society that is increasingly exercising freedoms in practice, but with very few legal protections to do so, and that situation is not sustainable.

So what have we been suggesting?  First of all, that there be continued progress in releasing people who have been prosecuted for the peaceful exercise of their political views or religious faith.  We raised a number of cases during the dialogue, including the two whom we visited in Nam Ha Prison.  Other cases we raised included blogger Anh Ba Sam, whose case is particularly egregious in that he has been detained for over a year without trial, as well as Ta Phong Tan, who is a former policewoman who then became a blogger, worked to expose corruption and was prosecuted for doing so.

We also encouraged the government to ease travel restrictions on activists.

But the most fundamentally important discussion is the one on legal reform, because we don’t want to be arguing forever about individual cases.  We want a situation in which the law protects peaceful expression.

So we’ve encouraged the government to ensure that the new penal code, the new criminal procedure code, the proposed law on religions, as well as planned laws on demonstrations and on associations – that is, the ability of civil society to organize – are fully consistent with the country’s obligations under international covenants it has ratified and consistent with Vietnam’s own constitution.

The argument that we have made to the government is that protecting human rights and strengthening the rule of law is in Vietnam’s own interest.  It will lead to greater social stability.  It will help Vietnam attract international support and investment.  It will be the quality that distinguishes Vietnam from many of its neighbors and that enables a truly strong and enduring partnership with the United States.

We know that reform in Vietnam is going to be a long-term process, but there is also the urgency of now.  We have been talking about TPP for years, but everybody understands that the moment of truth is here.

As I mentioned, I very strongly believe, as somebody who has worked on human rights for many many years, that saying yes to TPP with the very significant conditions attached to it would be good for the process of reform and for improving respect for human rights in Vietnam, and that saying no would set that process back significantly.

So it’s not just a vote on trade.  I see it as the most important human rights vote that the Congress will be taking all year.

At the same time there are legitimate concerns in the Congress about the progress Vietnam still needs to make on labor and human rights.  And so we stressed in our meetings with the government this week that every positive step Vietnam takes in the coming days and weeks will count in the country’s favor, and that every negative step in this time frame will hurt all the more.

Let me just say in closing that although human rights has traditionally been seen as a very sensitive and difficult issue in the relationship between the United States and Vietnam, it is also the key link between the relationship we have and the relationship that we want and that we could have.  Both sides understand that; they understand the reasons for it; and for that reason I am optimistic that in this critical year in the relationship between the two countries we are going to see progress on trade, on security, and on human rights.  And both sides will be better off for it.

I’m happy to take your questions.

Media:  [Reuters].  I’m interested to know, you obviously have this dialogue with the government.  What is the government’s explanation as to why it can’t just suddenly release all the prisoners of conscience or there are a lot of these reforms you’ve asked for.  What is the answer for why this can’t happen sooner?  What is remaining?  What’s slowed it down in so many ways?

Assistant Secretary Malinowski:  It depends in part on who you talk to, of course.  As you well know, the government is not monolithic.  As in any society undergoing a process of change, there are those who want to move more quickly and those who have fears.  And there is, therefore, a debate within the country, within the society, within its government, and that debate I think explains to some extent the pace of change.

As for the arguments, you can ask them.  I’m sure you have, and I’m sure you’ve heard —

Media: [Reuters]  We can’t ask them.  This is something that visitors always say, “you can ask them.”  Well, we can’t.

Assistant Secretary Malinowski:  — I’ll finish.  Well, maybe we should encourage that.

Those most directly involved in enforcing the laws say that their job is to enforce the laws as they are.  And that the people whom they have arrested have broken the laws.

At the same time, many in the government emphasize that they are in the process of adapting their current laws to meet this commitment to abide by international standards and their constitution.  So there is a tension there.

We’ve had particularly interesting and intensive discussions with the Ministry of Public Security on this question.  And while I don’t expect there to be full agreement between our vision and theirs, what we stressed was that there is a great deal that the Vietnamese government wants from its relationship with the United States and a great deal that the United States wants from the relationship as well, and that MPS holds the key to realizing that potential.  MPS, above all other parts of the Vietnamese government, holds the key to realizing that potential.

Media:  [Tuoi Tre]  I’m interested in (inaudible).  Could you please address some labor issues of Vietnam when it comes to TPP and what’s your expectation.

Assistant Secretary Malinowski:  Sure.  TPP requires that all of its members abide by internationally recognized labor standards.  And perhaps the most fundamental of those standards is freedom of association.

Many people in Vietnam are already freely associating.  There are a lot of workers in Vietnam who are already taking the intiative to create what are in effect local trade union associations.  But they don’t yet have the protection of law.  Giving them that protection would make for better industrial relations, better relations between employers and workers, and it would allow Vietnam to get credit for something that is already happening.  It is also a requirement of TPP.

Media: [Tuoi Tre] So what happens if Vietnam cannot meet that requirement?

Assistant Secretary Malinowski:  I believe Vietnam can meet the requirement.  It’s a decision that the government of Vietnam has to make.  All countries that wish to be part of TPP have decisions to make.  The treaty imposes requirements on all members, and every potential member has to decide: do we want to take the deal.

Media:  So what progress has been made on the Vietnam side so far?

Assistant Secretary Malinowski:  I don’t want to talk about the negotiations themselves.  I can simply say that this is a requirement for every member, and I think I will also add that I am relatively optimistic that we will arrive at an understanding on that critical issue because the economic and strategic benefits of being part of TPP vastly outweigh any of the reasons why Vietnam, why some in the government might fear taking that step.

Again, there is already free associating going on in Vietnam.  All this would do would be to recognize and legalize something that is already happening at the grass roots level.

Media: [AFP] It’s interesting that you mentioned about the reduction in political prisoners of conscience from about 160 down to about 100.  I don’t know if you have any more details you might be able to give us on that.

Second, I’m just wondering about, you mentioned about the virtual lack of prosecution for these general state crimes —

Assistant Secretary Malinowski:  This year, right.

Media:  Is that really progress or is it just that perhaps they realize that they don’t like it when they prosecute people so they’re not doing it.  They’re doing other things like, for example, there was a blogger quite badly beaten this morning.

Assistant Secretary Malinowski:  Yes, I know.

Media:  What do you think about that?

Assistant Secretary Malinowski:  Well, as I said, there are no illusions here.  There’re still very significant problems.  I do think that we have been asking for a very long time – and more important, Vietnamese civil society has been asking for a very long time – that the government not arrest, prosecute and imprison people for free expression.  And if – the emphasis on if – that ends, that is a good thing.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t other things happening that need to be addressed.  And as I mentioned, there’s clearly harassment, there are threats, there’s violence.  That’s what I was referring to, the case this morning.  And that’s not good.

So I think Vietnam has come a tremendous distance.  I think there’s still a great distance to go.

Just to give you an example on the positive side, just before coming here I spent two hours with about 150 students at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, and it was a no-holds-barred, totally open Q&A session on human rights, rule of law, every issue in the United States, in Vietnam.  There was no restraint in terms of the questions being asked.  There was no way we could do that in China.

So, on their face, superficially, one can say: these two countries have similar political systems, but there is a very different climate in Vietnam.

So, as I’ve been suggesting, a lot of the progress has been informal.  It’s civil society seizing space.  It is a government that seeks to govern more rationally, more in the interest of its society, allowing them that space.  But the progress hasn’t been formalized in law, which means that everybody in that space remains vulnerable.

Media: [VTV4] You said human rights dialogue [inaudible], so have you seen any positive results after this year [inaudible]?  How about this year [inaudible]?

Assistant Secretary Malinowski:  I think we have seen positive results in the last year.  As I mentioned, since the last dialogue the Vietnamese government has ratified two very important human rights treaties, including the Convention Against Torture and the Treaty on Disability Rights.  It has released some people who we consider to be prisoners of conscience, and we have seen more restraint this year with virtually no arrests or prosecutions for people who are exercising freedom of speech peacefully, and that’s important.

At the same time, we think there is a long way to go before Vietnam meets its own goal of bringing its laws and its practices fully into compliance with its own constitution and with international standards.

Media: [Reuters] How about the issue of Congress?  You mentioned that what happens in Vietnam in the days and weeks ahead is going to be crucial.  Are you suggesting that human rights in Vietnam is an issue with Congress that could see the deal shot down potentially?  That’s how it sounds.

Assistant Secretary Malinowski:  Human rights in Vietnam, including labor rights, is a very important issue for many members of Congress.  We’ve had multiple congressional delegations here in the last several months, including one this week.  And they have all delivered that message to the Vietnamese government.  I can only echo the message that the U.S. Congress has itself delivered on multiple occasions.

Now I believe, as the top human rights official in the U.S. government – I don’t work on trade, I work on human rights – that given how far this process has come in Vietnam and how fragile it is, that a signal by the Congress that membership in TPP remains possible for Vietnam will be very important in encouraging the process to continue, and that a negative signal would be very damaging.  But there are serious and legitimate concerns that many members of Congress have.  They want to see a deal that assures respect for labor rights, including freedom of association.  They want to see people who are in prison for their political beliefs released.  They’ve conveyed that, many members directly, to the Government of Vietnam, and I think the government is well aware that all eyes are on Vietnam’s human rights record, particularly right now, and that positive steps in the next few weeks will significantly strengthen the case for Vietnam and TPP.

Let me just clarify even further, because obviously you’re hitting on a very important point here.

I don’t think Vietnam is opening up just because of TPP.  Vietnam is opening up in its own interest.  And that is the context in which we address the Government of Vietnam on human rights issues.

At the same time, it’s absolutely plain that the U.S. Congress is about to make a very consequential decision, and that the steps Vietnam has been taking recently and any steps it might take in the next few weeks will be a factor in that decision.

Media:  What other step in your [inaudible] you expect the Vietnam government to do?

Assistant Secretary Malinowski:  I’m sorry, what specifically?

Media:  Yes.  What steps —

Assistant Secretary Malinowski:  As I acknowledged, there’s a long term process of reform, and nobody expects any country to transform itself in a matter of weeks.  That’s not what we’re talking about here.  I stressed some of the important things that we are looking at.  Obviously, there’s great interest in the United States in specific cases of concern.  There is great interest in Vietnam and, therefore, also in the United States in the reform of key laws, including the criminal code, criminal procedure code.  In particular, some of the so-called national security articles in the criminal code.

So, the government could send signals about its intentions with respect to reforming these critical pieces of legislation.  And of course, as we have been discussing, it can avoid taking actions that send negative signals.  For example, instances of harassment or attacks on civil society activists.  Or arrests or prosecutions which, as I mentioned, there has been restraint on that this year and that can and should continue.  So there are things that are long term, but there are signals that can be sent more immediately that would be very helpful.

Thank you all.