SMITH: Skipping the photo op

Obama should press Vietnam to free its best and bravest

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President Obama must seriously and robustly defend the Vietnamese people in their heroic struggle against an ever-worsening dictatorship led by President Truong Tan Sang.

Religious persecution, torture, incarceration of journalists and bloggers as well as other human rights abuses in Vietnam have gone from bad to worse — with 2013 on track to be one of the worst ever.

Within the past four months alone — on April 11 and June 4 — I’ve chaired two more congressional hearings on the deteriorating human rights situation in Vietnam.

Underscoring Vietnam’s race to the bottom with the likes of China, Sudan and North Korea, John Sifton of Human Rights Watch testified at my June 4 hearing that “in the first few months of 2013, more people have been convicted in political trials as in the whole of the last year.”

Thus, the vague and superficial remarks about human rights and the customarily inadequate attention to the horrifying details of imprisoned democracy activists, human rights defenders, religious believers and journalists expected to be delivered by Mr. Obama when he meets with Mr. Sang on Thursday at the White House will undoubtedly do a grave disservice to Vietnam’s best and bravest. This is not the time for photo ops or treating human rights abuse as a talking point.

If Mr. Obama mishandles this opportunity to publicly speak out as he has to China and other dictatorships, the cause of defending human rights and the victims who daily sacrifice their lives and freedom will be further derailed.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Obama must break his pernicious habit of enabling dictators — and abandoning countless victims — by demanding on Thursday that political and religious prisoners in Vietnam be set free and the cruel government policies that repress be changed.

It’s time for the leader of the free world to personally and publicly press hard for reform. Lower-level human rights dialogues between American and Vietnamese diplomats, while nice, have not borne meaningful fruit.

It’s up to Mr. Obama to name names and demand that dissidents be freed. The United States has many levers and tools that have atrophied through neglect.

As the prime author of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, the law that among many other provisions established the Trafficking in Persons office at the State Department, the TIP annual report and tier rankings, I am deeply disturbed that the tier 2 ranking for Vietnam misses the mark by a mile. Vietnam should be designated tier 3 — egregious human-trafficking violator — because of government complicity in both sex and labor trafficking.

In like manner, Vietnam ought to be designated a Country of Particular Concern because of escalating religious persecution, but the Obama administration has failed to do that either.

On several trips to Vietnam, I’ve met courageous religious leaders who endure numbing hardships, including torture, to promote fundamental human rights in their country. We’ve got to have their backs in a meaningful way.

Unfortunately, many of these remarkable individuals, including the Rev. Nguyen Van Ly and the Most Venerable Thich Quang Do, remain wrongly detained today. There are disturbing reports that Father Ly is suffering poor health.

Leaders of religious organizations are not only victimized by the Vietnamese government — entire communities are also targeted for confiscation by the regime. Tien Tran testified at my April 11 hearing and told the subcommittee of the brutality that he experienced as a member of the Con Dau Catholic parish that has been violently repressed and its land and assets confiscated since 2010.

Vietnam’s human rights record has actually gotten worse since the bilateral trade agreement was inked and permanent normal trade relations were conveyed in 2006.

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