President Obama is under pressure from members of Congress, human rights groups and union leaders to demand an end to the suppression of human rights in Vietnam when he meets with the leader of the Southeast Asian nation at the White House on Thursday.
One of Mr. Obama’s biggest supporters, Teamsters union President James P. Hoffa, says the U.S. must stop negotiating a trade agreement with Vietnam because of human rights abuses.
Mr. Hoffa plans to release a report Wednesday that details “major human rights and worker rights problems, such as forced labor” in Vietnam.
The White House said human rights will be on the agenda when Mr. Obama meets with Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang.
Mr. Sang’s visit takes place at a time when his government’s crackdown on dissidents, bloggers and religious leaders has caused alarm in Washington. The White House invitation caught many by surprise.
“We are puzzled why the Vietnamese president was invited [to Washington]. It’s a reward,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, noted that criticizing the Vietnamese government can land dissidents in prison.
“If criticizing the Vietnamese government is a crime, President Obama should show solidarity with dissidents by committing the crime himself,” he said.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry will host a working lunch for Mr. Sang at the State Department on Wednesday.
Mr. Sang’s visit to the United States is only the second by a Vietnamese head of state since Washington resumed diplomatic ties with Hanoi in 1995. His predecessor, Nguyen Minh Triet, visited Washington in June 2007. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung traveled to Washington in June 2008.
Rep. Edward R. Royce, California Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, called on Mr. Obama to insist that the Vietnamese leader honor promises Hanoi has made on human rights.
“It is the responsibility of the United States to live up to the agreements we have signed, and one of those agreements demands that Vietnam, in exchange for its relationship with the United States, makes progress on human rights,” Mr. Royce said.
He said the “backsliding” on human rights is so bad that the communist government in the first six weeks of this year conducted “40 show trials.”
“The backsliding is so bad that far from having things change, they are accelerating in terms of trampling the rights of the people of Vietnam,” he said.
Mr. Royce authored legislation in the House that calls on the State Department to redesignate Vietnam as a “Country of Particular Concern” for its violations of religious freedoms. The classification could result in a range of consequences from a public presidential rebuke to economic sanctions. The State Department removed Vietnam from the list of religious freedom abusers in 2006.