Media Roundtable with Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski, U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

Moderator:  — But we’re very fortunate in our visitor today because of the wide-ranging nature of the topics, which are of such interest these days, we’re pleased to have Tom Malinowski who is the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, the Department of State.  He’s been in that position since April of this year, 2014.  Prior to that he spent more than a decade as the Director of the Washington, DC office of Human Rights Watch.  Earlier in his career he also worked for the State Department in our Policy Planning Division.  I think we’ll dive right in.

This event is on the record and he’s here to talk about his visit here to Vietnam.

Assistant Secretary Malinowski:  Thank you everybody.  Thanks for joining us.

We’re just finishing several days here in Hanoi.  It’s my first trip since the year 2000 when I was here with President Clinton on his historic trip to the country that year.

I have had a very very productive set of meetings.  We met with the Vice Minister of Public Security, To Lam; the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs; the External Relations Committee of the Communist Party; National Assembly; a number of meetings with members of civil society.  Today we attended services at the Hanoi Evangelical Church, stopped by Quan Su Pagoda, and this evening will be going to a Catholic mass in the city.

Yesterday we spent a day outside of town in Thai Nguyen visiting the Phu Son Prison which the Ministry of Public Security arranged for us.

We’ve had a lot of diplomatic activity in the last few weeks.  I’m here in the wake of Ambassador Froman’s visit, our Trade Representative.  The Foreign Minister of Vietnam was just in Washington, met with Secretary Kerry, where we announced the partial lifting of the lethal arms ban.  And made clear that we want to do more to deepen the relationship, we can do more, both in the realm of security cooperation, TPP; but we can do this if, and only if, there’s demonstrable progress on human rights.

So the purpose of my trip is to explore what progress might be possible this year and over the next couple of years.

Our message to everybody we met is that there is a historic opportunity now to build a much, much closer relationship between the United States and Vietnam; but we don’t want this to be a transactional relationship, one in which we come to Vietnam when we need them for something and the Vietnamese come to us when they need us for something.  We want this to be a much deeper and much more sustainable partnership like the ones that we have with our closest friends and allies in Asia, in Europe, and elsewhere.

But to get there it’s not enough for us to be in agreement about what we’re against.  We need to be in agreement about what we are for.  We need a solid foundation based on shared values, and that’s why we stress the human rights issue so strongly.

I acknowledge some of the progress that Vietnam has made recently including the release of 12 prisoners of conscience.  But we do want to see more.  There are a number of other cases of people who have been imprisoned for the peaceful expression of their views.  People like Le Quoc Quan, Anh Ba Sam, labor activists, bloggers like Ta Phong Tan, and a number of others; and we have given the Vietnamese government a list of all of the people whom we believe to be imprisoned in this category.

At the same time it would not be progress if a dozen people were released and then a dozen more people were arrested, so what we stressed above all is the need to follow through on the commitment that the Vietnamese government has made to fundamentally reform the laws under which the centers have been targeted in the past, to bring the country’s laws into full compliance with its 2013 constitution and with its international obligations.

So we talked a lot about the national security articles in the Criminal Code.  Article 79, 87, 88, 258 which are commonly used in such cases.  We talked about the work that will have to be done to implement the Convention Against Torture if and when that is ratified by the National Assembly.  We very much welcomed the President’s call on the National Assembly to ratify the Convention in the session.

We talked about efforts to adopt a new law on religion, and urged the Vietnamese government to ensure that a new law eases registration requirements for congregations of all faiths around the country.  As well as the need for legal reforms that would allow Vietnamese citizens the right to form labor associations which is an important part of the TPP accession process.

Obviously these are all issues that only the Vietnamese government and Vietnamese people can tackle.  The United States can provide advice; the United States can share its experiences; and that’s what we have been trying to do.

At the same time I think everybody I spoke to in the government as well as civil society understands that progress in these areas will make it possible for the relationship to grow stronger and that’s going to be good for both countries.

It would be wonderful if next year, which will be the 20th anniversary of the reopening of relations between the two countries, we could celebrate the progress in some of the areas that I mentioned.

I’ll stop there and take any questions you all may have.

Mary Ann Benson, German Press Agency.

You said you don’t want it to be a transactional relationship but many see the release of Dieu Cay as part of the negotiations to the partial lifting of the arms embargo.  And you also mentioned the release of a dozen new prisoners of conscience, that Vietnam doesn’t say there are any [inaudible].  So what [inaudible] see there?

Assistant Secretary Malinowski:  A couple of things.  First of all I don’t care what they’re called, the important thing is that people who have been imprisoned for the peaceful expression of their opinions, their religious beliefs, are released.

Second, as important as that is, it’s much more important to continue progress and to fulfill commitments in legal reform that will allow us to put these kinds of cases behind us.

And frankly, in evaluating what I see as the promise of this moment, I am thinking more about the commitments that the government has made to its own people [than] about the need to bring the laws of the country into compliance with the new constitution which does have, on paper, strong human rights commitments which are not in many cases respected and practiced.

DPA:  Vietnam not recognizing that there are prisoners of conscience is proof of the fact that they say that they broke the law [only], so they’re criminals.  But we would say they’re prisoners of conscience because their freedom of speech, they’re bloggers, so forth.  So surely that is an important distinction.

Assistant Secretary Malinowski: 
The truth is that some of them have broken the law because the law in the country is not consistent with the human rights commitments in Vietnam’s own constitution.  The law does, in fact, prohibit things like making propaganda against the state.  So on one level, the government can accurately say that certain people whom we consider prisoners of conscience have broken the law, and that is why the way to resolve this conundrum, whether we agree on the terminology or not, is to do the hard work of legal reform which will take time, but ultimately is what can get us past this point where we are arguing about specific cases and to a place where we have a much more modern, much more close, much less transactional relationship between the United States and Vietnam.

VTV1:  [Through Interpreter].  With regard to the labor area you said that there is a need to reform laws in order to let people form labor unions.  And a few days ago USTR Froman also said that in the area of labor there are some difficulties between Vietnam and the U.S. in negotiating the TPP.

So, in your opinion, how should Vietnam and the U.S. overcome these challenges?

Assistant Secretary Malinowski: 
The TPP is very important to the United States and I think it’s very important to Vietnam; and if I’m right about that, then I think we will resolve that obstacle.  We haven’t started out in the same place; but we are coming closer together, and I trust that the negotiating teams on both sides will find a solution that recognizes the ways in which Vietnam is different, but that brings Vietnam into compliance with the basic requirement of the TPP which applies to all members, potential members, of this community, that there be freedom of association.

AFP:  Kat Barton from AFP.

You mentioned that Vietnam has made commitments to reform certain laws which target dissenters and you discussed 79, 88, et cetera.  During your talks did you get recognition from Vietnam that these laws are troublesome and that they are being used specifically for that reason?  And any specific commitment to reform or to get rid of the particular articles?

Assistant Secretary Malinowski:  There was a recognition that they’re troublesome in the relationship.  And more important, there was a recognition that the laws in general, not necessarily with respect to a specific law, but that the laws in general have not yet caught up with the very new commitments that have been enshrined in the constitution in 2013.

I explained why, in our view, some of those specific articles were not in fact consistent with Vietnam’s obligations.  Partly because they appear to target freedom of expression and association.  And partly because laws like 258, for example, which prohibits people from abusing their “democratic freedoms,” are so vague that they allow for arbitrary enforcement by the state.  And I stressed that foreign investors are as interested as anybody else in getting the vagueness and the arbitrariness out of the legal system in Vietnam.

The next step is up to the government of Vietnam.  The revisions have not yet been submitted.  The draft revisions have not yet been submitted to the National Assembly.  When they are, we hope the Vietnamese people will have a chance to comment on them as they did with the new constitution.

We will share our views, international legal experts will share their views.  Then we’ll see.

VTV4:   I’m Ngoc from Vietnam Television.

My question is you mentioned the progress on human rights can have an effect on economic relations.  Could you please explain more about this and how human rights progress can be related to the security area?

Assistant Secretary Malinowski:  First as we’ve discussed, labor rights are part of the negotiations for the TPP.  The TPP also has to be ratified by the U.S. Congress; and there is a great deal of concern in the U.S. Congress about human rights conditions inside Vietnam beyond labor rights.  So progress will make it much easier for us to convince our Congress that they should approve TPP with Vietnam as part of the agreement.

The same goes for security cooperation.  We’ve taken one important step in partially lifting the ban on lethal arms sales.  But this is a step by step process, and as I mentioned in my opening statement, to have that kind of deep relationship of the sort that we have with South Korea, with Japan, with Germany, with England, we’ll need to have more confidence that this relationship is based on shared values.

I think we can get there.  If we do get there it will be a sustainable partnership.  It won’t just be for one year or for two years.  It won’t be just because there is a crisis in the East Sea this year.  It will be there for whatever challenges we face in the future.

Thanh Nien:  [Through Interpreter].  In recent years some of the prisoners in Vietnam like Tran Khai Thanh Thuy, Cu Huy Ha Vu, Nguyen Van Hai, were released and then they were taken to the U.S.  So I would like to ask you to clarify if that is the decision made by those individuals or if that is a part of a deal between the U.S. and Vietnam?

And the second part of my question is what is the U.S. policy towards these people?  What will they get?  For example, will the U.S. let them live in the U.S. like a U.S. citizen?

Assistant Secretary Malinowski:  In some cases, the government of Vietnam has insisted that prisoners who are released leave the country upon their release. In other cases, it has allowed them to stay inside Vietnam.  In the first case in which the government insists on the prisoner leaving, we will of course accept that if that is the wish of the prisoner.  But it is not ideal.

We’ve made clear to the government that people who are denied their liberty because of peaceful dissent should be released and allowed to resume their lives inside of Vietnam.  That is true human rights progress.
If they come to the United States they will generally come with a special status that gives them a path to citizenship after several years if they choose to pursue it.  So it is their choice.

AFP:  With the release of Dieu Cay recently and Cu Huy Ha Vu, if they’re released into exile, but that is seen, you mentioned these 12 people who have been released as a kind of part of this progress, are you not encouraging the Vietnamese government to just continue with this kind of policy of arresting people who will eventually in prison become quite high profile, whose names will be added to lists, who then could be released and bargained for greater concessions in terms of security or grade?

Assistant Secretary Malinowski:  If that’s what they’re thinking, and I have no idea if that’s true or not, then it’s not going to work.  We obviously are going to welcome the release of people who were unjustly detained.  That’s a good thing.  But the deeper progress that I think both of our governments want to see in the relationship, as I’ve mentioned, will require deeper reform of a more lasting, more institutional nature inside Vietnam.  That’s explicitly true in TPP because of the freedom of association issue.  And it’s de facto true for other aspects of the relationship.

It’s not an unrealistic request because the government of Vietnam has itself said that it is interested in moving in this direction, which I think and hope they are doing in their own interest, not because of us.

Infonet:  [Through Interpreter].  During the visit by Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Minh to Washington, the U.S. announced it eased partly the ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam.  My question is, why does the U.S. only ease partly the ban?  Is it an exchange for the human rights issue between Vietnam and the U.S.?

And another question, is human rights something that hinder the relations between Vietnam and the U.S.?

Assistant Secretary Malinowski:  As I mentioned, well first of all, we eased the ban because we have concerns about the security situation in this part of the world that we share with the people and government of Vietnam.  We eased it partially because we also have concerns about the human rights situation inside of Vietnam.  We want to see progress on security and human rights and building the relationship to go together.

You asked if human rights is an obstacle to the relationship.  I’d rather look ahead five or ten years when I hope that human rights will be one of the factors that bonds the United States and Vietnam. I think it can be.  I think that respect for human rights can be something that helps to distinguish Vietnam from some other countries in this region.

Thanh Nien:  [Through Interpreter].  If I may, I would like you to reveal some more about the meeting between you and the Vice Minister of Public Security and the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Assistant Secretary Malinowski:  Well, we sat in chairs.  [Laughter].  The meeting with the Vice Minister for Public Security was almost two hours long.  It was very serious, very substantive.  We covered all of the important issues.  I don’t ever want to characterize what the other person said because you should ask them.  But I’ll tell you what I said.  I said that there are many things that the governments of Vietnam and the United States want for our relationship in the future and that the Ministry of Public Security holds the most important key.

DPA:  You visited a prison yesterday.  Did you get to meet with prisoners?  And if so were you meeting any prisoners of conscience or just regular prisoners?  Were you able to talk with them or were you just looking around?

Assistant Secretary Malinowski:  We were able to talk to some prisoners but not, in this visit, prisoners of conscience. The embassy has visited a number of well-known and less well-known prisoners of conscience over the years and recently as well.  I’m sure they can give you the details.  But I think this is the first time a senior visitor from Washington has visited a prison.  Is that correct?

A U.S. Embassy officer: 
I think so.

Assistant Secretary Malinowski:  I think any prison in Vietnam.

A U.S. Embassy officer:  We’d have to check.  I think that’s true.

Assistant Secretary Malinowski:  It’s a very small step forward in that respect and we weren’t detained.  [Laughter].

Moderator:  That’s it, I think.  Our thanks to Mr. Tom Malinowski, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor for giving us this read-out of his visit and sharing our policy views on this very important subject.  And my thanks to all of you for coming out on Sunday.  Thank you very much for being here.

Assistant Secretary Malinowski: 
Thank you.