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.
The Obama administration has consistently expressed its concerns about human rights violations in Vietnam.
Mr. Sang said Tuesday that American concerns over the arrests of dissidents and other human rights abuses in Vietnam must not stand in the way of closer military and economic ties with the United States.
In Vietnam, “the fundamental rights and freedoms of the people are respected,” Mr. Sang told The Associated Press in a written response to questions.
“There are a number of differences between Vietnam and the United States including those on human rights, but this is quite normal,” he said about U.S. concerns over the arrests of bloggers.
Mr. Adams said Mr. Sang’s remarks are a challenge to Mr. Obama not to raise human rights and that the Vietnamese leader may think the United States sees its relationship with Vietnam as important enough to downplay those concerns.
“It is really a challenge that Mr. Obama has to accept,” said Mr. Adams. “He has to show that he can walk and chew gum at the same time, that he can deliver a very strong message on human rights while conducting other forms of diplomacy.
“I think that the Vietnamese president is going to be in for a big surprise,” he added, noting that the Obama administration and Congress are increasingly disappointed and angry at the harsh crackdown taking place in Vietnam.
Economic and military ties also will feature in Mr. Sang’s discussions in Washington. Bilateral trade soared to $25 billion in 2012 from $400 million 10 years earlier, David Shear, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, told the Asia Foundation this month.
Vietnam wants the United States to lift an embargo imposed in 1984 on the sale of weapons to Vietnam’s military.
Human Rights Watch urged Mr. Obama to suspend defense and trade negotiations with Vietnam until the government ends its crackdown and promises to repeal legal provisions criminalizing dissent.
The U.S. relationship with Vietnam is driven in part by the Obama administration’s strategic pivot to Asia, which some analysts interpret as a policy aimed at containing China.
“As much as the human rights issue is one that needs to be addressed , the bigger issue is Vietnam’s strategic alignment,” said Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.
“A lot of commentary on our side assumes that these visits constitute some sort of alignment with the U.S. in terms of strategy or concerns about China. But for every visit that the Vietnamese president makes to the U.S., he makes [visits] to China.”
China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner.
“More important ultimately is really Vietnam deciding how it wants to approach the U.S. strategically. They haven’t made up their mind. If they were to make up their mind, maybe they would be more receptive on these human rights issues,” Mr. Lohman said.
“But you can never really have a close relationship with Vietnam as long as they are oppressing people.”