Remarks by Ambassador Michael W. Michalak at Human Rights Day Event
December 9, 2010, 3PM
Good afternoon ladies, gentlemen, and distinguished guests. Welcome to the U.S. Embassy and to the American Center. For those who are here at the American Center for the first time I would like to welcome you in particular. Today’s event is one of many discussions we have throughout the year on important topics.
This past year has marked a fantastic year for Vietnam both domestically and internationally. We have celebrated the 1,000 anniversary of Hanoi and Vietnam’s Chairmanship of ASEAN. This has also been an important banner year in the bilateral relationship. We have marked the 15th anniversary of diplomatic relations and had three cabinet-level visits. It would have been difficult to believe 15 years ago that our relations would be as strong and robust as they are today. We are looking forward to 2011 and are confident that our bilateral relationship will only improve.
As you may know, my tenure in Vietnam is winding down. A little more than three years ago, I sat before the United States Senate and promised to work hard on three main priority areas during my tenure as Ambassador: increasing bilateral trade, doubling the number of Vietnamese students studying in the United States, and working to improve human rights in Vietnam. During my term, our economic and trade relations have flourished, military and security cooperation is deep and broad, and increased education and cultural exchanges help build bridges of trust and respect between our two peoples. While there has been tremendous success in these areas, regrettably progress in human rights during my three years has been uneven.
Tomorrow marks the 62nd anniversary of the adoption and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This declaration outlines that everyone everywhere is entitled to certain basic rights and freedoms “regardless of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” 50 years ago on December 4, 1950 the United Nations General Assembly enshrined December 10 as Human Rights Day to be celebrated worldwide. We are here today to celebrate Human Rights Day, even though it’s a day early.
I would also like to highlight our annual human rights dialogue, which is scheduled to take place next week. Since 1993 we have most years held an annual exchange on human rights issues. As Secretary Clinton made clear during her July and October visits, dialogue on these important topics is key to deepening our relationship in the future. I know that the United States is not alone in this discussion on this important issue with Vietnam. I understand that the European Union today is conducting its own human rights dialogue with the government of Vietnam.
We recognize and applaud the progress that Vietnam has made in some areas, such as in poverty reduction, improved infant mortality and other areas of the UN Millennium Development Goals. In fact, the World Bank frequently touts Vietnam’s record in removing more people from poverty in a shorter period of time than any other country in the history of the world. The government can and should be very proud of this record. Over the last five years, the government has also improved the ability of religious people to practice their faith. I will touch on that area in greater detail later.
We remain concerned, however, about Vietnam’s human rights practices in other areas. Vietnam is a signatory to the UN Convention on Civil and Political Rights, but the government continues to criminalize free speech and dissent, and labels political parties other than the Communist Party “terrorist” organizations.
2010 witnessed an overall narrowing of the space for public discourse in Vietnam. More than 24 people were arrested, and an additional 14 were convicted for the peaceful expression of their views. In our opinion, no one should be sent to jail for merely disagreeing with government policies, or labeled a terrorist for wanting to be able to provide more input into policymaking.
Increasing efforts to stifle media organizations, internet freedom and civil society are also troubling. Over the past year, internet transparency has been repeatedly under attack. Whether talking about the blocking of Facebook, hacking of critical websites, increasingly restrictive regulations on internet cafes and blogging, or using malware to spy on dissidents, this year has seen a significant downturn in internet freedom. A vibrant internet, free media and functioning civil society, will be necessary to help Vietnam to tackle many difficult issues it faces such as education reform, corruption and environmental degradation. Academic freedom, intellectual property rights, freedom of scientists and the social sciences to debate problems and find solutions are crucial for innovation and economic development.
There have been some positive developments as well. For example, community-based organizations are working increasingly closer with local officials to fight HIV/AIDS and domestic violence. Another area where over the past three years I have seen strong improvements is religious freedom where individuals are now largely free to practice their deeply felt convictions. Pagodas, churches, temples and mosques throughout Vietnam are full. Improvements include increased religious participation, large-scale religious gatherings – some with more than 100,000 participants, growing numbers of registered and recognized religious organizations, increasing number of new churches and pagodas, and bigger involvement of religious groups in charitable activities. President Nguyen Minh Triet also met with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican, and Vietnam and the Holy See agreed to a Vatican appointment of a non-resident Representative for Vietnam as a first step toward the establishment of full diplomatic relations.
However, some significant problems remain including occasional harassment and excessive use of force by local government officials against religious groups in some outlying locations. Specifically, there were several problematic high-profile incidents over the past year including where the authorities used excessive force against Catholic parishioners in land disputes outside of Hanoi at Dong Chiem parish and outside of Danang at Con Dau parish. These incidents call into question Vietnam’s commitment to the rule of law and hurt Vietnam’s otherwise positive image on religious freedom. Registration of Protestant congregations also remains slow and cumbersome in some areas of the country, particularly in the Northwest Highlands.
For an extremely detailed readout on religious freedom in Vietnam I would recommend you read our annual International Religious Freedom Vietnam Country Report, which is available in English and Vietnamese on our website. Contrary to some comments you may have heard, I think if you read this report you will find it to be well researched and balanced. We are by no means perfect in the U.S, but we keep on trying. And I want to stress that Vietnam is not being singled out on this issue. Annually, every Embassy in the world prepares a report on this topic, which is sent in to Washington and published in this huge report on international religious freedom.
Now, I firmly believe that the absolute best way to resolve our differences on these and other issues is to keep talking about them – and that’s why next week’s Human Rights Dialogue is so critically important. The U.S. and Vietnam now cooperate in a very broad spectrum of areas, and the relationship is more productive today than ever before.
The United States wants a strong and prosperous Vietnam. The future is bright for Vietnam and for our bilateral relationship. Real challenges remain in the relationship, including human rights, but through dialogue and through frank and honest discussions I remain hopeful about the future.
Thank you very much, and I’m ready to answer any questions you may have.