WASHINGTON INDOCHINA UPDATE #15
Human rights issues dominated the bilateral agendas of US relations with Vietnam and Laos in March, with new reports and legislation. The trade front was slightly more encouraging, with some movement on Normal Trade Relations for Laos and a reduction of tariffs on catfish from Vietnam.
On April 3 Congressman Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey) re-introduced the Vietnam Human Rights Act into the House of Representatives. The bill’s predecessor passed last year in the House by a large margin (410-1) but was effectively defeated in the Senate when Senator John Kerry (D-Mass) placed a hold on it. The draft Act is expected to pass the House again, but its fate in the Senate is less promising. The bill may receive a more sympathetic hearing in that chamber than it did last year, since Senator Kerry has been replaced as the Asia Pacific Subcommittee chair by Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), who is considered to be part of the Congressional human rights caucus. However, most analysts do not believe that Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, will support the legislation.
Among the policy measures in the 2003 version of the Vietnam Human Rights Act are (a) prohibition of Fiscal Year 2004 US nonhumanitarian assistance to Vietnam unless certain human rights conditions are met; (b) instruction that US Executive Directors of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund oppose loans to Vietnam unless the President certifies that religious freedom has improved; (c) authorization of $2 million each for FY 2004 and FY 2005 to fund programs for human rights promotion through NGO’s and individuals; (d) authorization of increased Radio Free Asia broadcasts to Vietnam, in response to perceptions that existing RFA programs are being jammed; and (e) authorization of funds for refugee resettlement.
American non-governmental organizations working in Vietnam and other interested groups fear that bilateral relations could be damaged by the Act, even if it is ultimately defeated. Watch the Fund’s website (www.ffrd.org) for information on collective efforts to oppose the bill.
Friction over human rights in US-Vietnamese relations has also been noted recently in the executive branch. In its April 3 edition, the Far Eastern Economic Review reported that the Bush administration informed Congress in January it had placed Hanoi on notice that the annual human rights dialogue was at risk of cancellation unless “concrete improvements” were seen in eight areas of human rights. In his March 26 testimony before the House East Asia Subcommittee, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Daley reinforced this idea when he indicated that the administration was disappointed with the results of the dialogue, (Daley’s full testimony on US policy in Southeast Asia can be viewed at www.state.gov/p/eap/rls/rm/2003/19086.htm.) The US-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue originated in negotiations between the two nations over normalization of relations in the 1990’s. In contrast to the US-China human rights dialogue, which has tended to be sporadic, the dialogue with Vietnam has continued at regular intervals for nearly a decade.
On March the US Commission for International Religious Freedom released its first report on Laos. The report was largely critical and again called for Laos to be designated as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) for religious freedom. The Commission has recommended CPC designation for Laos since 2000, although it did not send a delegation to the country until 2002. The report makes two additional policy recommendations. First, the US and Laos are urged to establish a bilateral human rights dialogue. In addition, the State Department is urged to make an assessment of Laos’ human rights “needs,” which would form the basis for an assistance program on human rights. Recommendations of the Commission are not binding in law. The report is available on the Commission’s website, www.uscirf.gov.
The Commission’s underlying Western frame of reference was clear in a statement from its March 19 press release on the report: “Laos is at an important crossroads, between those who advocate that the country follow the model of China or Vietnam, and those who seek to modernize the country by learning from the United States and other Western democracies that respect human rights.”
In contrast, the State Department tends to take a more comparative approach to the issue of religious freedom in Laos. In a March 31 statement, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Lorne Craner remarked that Laos had made “incremental progress on religious freedom.” The Department has thusfar declined to name Laos as a “country of particular concern.”
On March 31 the State Department issued its reports on human rights conditions in nearly 200 countries for the year 2002.These reports measure an individual country’s human rights protection against standards set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the international convenants which are based on the Declaration. The annual reports typically build on a boilerplate which carries over from one year to the next; as a result, they are best read side-by-side with the previous year’s reports. They are available at www.state.gov.
Of the three Indochina country reports, the Vietnam report has been the most balanced in recent years, with stress on improvements as well as problems.
The report echoed last year’s mention of continued efforts to reform the bureaucracy, and improvements in freedoms of expression and assembly. As in last year’s report, concerns about conditions in the Central Highlands were also emphasized.
The 2002 Laos report predictably gave considerable attention to issues of religious freedom, particularly relating to Christians. However, it also noted that “the Government actively supported a policy of encouraging greater rights for women, children, persons with disabilities and minorities.” In contrast to last year, the 2002 report on Cambodia was more critical. However, it did report that the Cambodian government generally respected freedoms of expression, press and publication, although this finding was not featured in the introductory summary.
The government of Vietnam, supported by funds from the United Nations Development Program, as well as from Canada, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, has announced a five-year program to strengthen the capacities of Vietnam’s elected bodies at all levels. The program will focus on strengthening the legislative, representative and oversight functions of the National Assembly and the People’s Councils, including support for the budgetary process and oversight role of the Committee for Economic and Budgetary Affairs in the Assembly. One aspect of the program will provide training for the Assembly’s 350 newly-elected deputies.
This effort follows recent amendments to the 1992 Constitution that seek to improve representative and legislative bodies. Although the Constitution gave these bodies greater powers, their lawmaking and oversight capacities now require enhancement as well.
Recent decades have shown that strengthening the oversight and capacity of legislative bodies is a proven road to the development of more open systems in the Asia region. This phenomenon was seen in Thailand in the 1980’s, and has been seen in Indonesia and China since the 1990’s.
Negotiations between the United Nations and the Government of Cambodia have concluded with the production of a draft agreement for the joint prosecution of former Khmer Rouge leaders for crimes against humanity during their 1975-79 rule. This development caps more than five years of discussions between the UN and Cambodia, which broke down last year and were resumed at the urging of UN Resolution 57/228 last December. The product of the most recent negotiations -- which all sides acknowledge will likely be the last attempt -- is a mixed tribunal of Cambodian and international jurists, with a super-majority formula requiring the vote of at least one international judge for a decision to stand. The Cambodian cabinet approved the draft agreement on March 28. In order to be implemented, the agreement must also be approved by the U.N. General Assembly and ratified by the Cambodian National Assembly.
On March 5, Congressman Philip N. Crane (R-Illinois), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Trade of the House Ways and Means Committee announced that the Subcommittee is requesting written public comment for the record from any party interested in the extension of Normal Trade Relations (NTR) to Laos.
Laos is one of only three countries which does not have NTR in its trade relations with the United States. In 1997 the US and Laos concluded a Bilateral Trade Agreement (BTA), but it has not yet been enacted.
NTR will be granted and the BTA enacted simultaneously if Congress approves legislation amending the Harmonized Trade Schedule to strike Laos from the list of countries subject to non-NTR tariffs. The request for comment follows on the February 24, 2003 letter sent by Secretary of State Colin Powell and US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, expressing the administration’s support for both NTR for Laos and the BTA.
Comments must be submitted electronically to no later than April 21 to:
A faxed copy of the document should also be sent, to 202-225-2610. Comments should be in Word Perfect or MS Word format, and should not exceed ten pages. They should be accompanied by a sheet listing the name, company, address, telephone number and fax number of the submitter.
Trade Subcommittee staff have indicated that the Subcommittee will decide on a future course of action after evaluating the public comments.
In early March the US Department of Commerce announced it would reduce tariffs on catfish imports from Vietnam on several companies. Although not an across-the-board cut, tariffs were lowered by nearly half for two major catfish exporters, and were significantly decreased for six smaller importers. Three major exporters are still subject to tariffs imposed last January under a preliminary Commerce Department ruling, ranging from 38% to 64%. The Department expects to make a final ruling on the issue this summer.
The catfish issue is the first significant trade dispute to arise between the United States and Vietnam since enactment of the US-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement. It originated in a suit brought by Mississippi Delta fish farmers.
The catfish industry in Vietnam employs approximately 300,000 to 400,000 people in the southern Mekong Delta region. Nguyen Huu Dung, general secretary of the Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers, characterized the March announcement as a positive step toward the resolution of the dispute.
Kien Pham has been selected as the founding Executive Director of the Vietnam Education Foundation, the bilateral agency which will reprogram repayment of debt funds into educational assistance and other activities to promote development in Vietnam and strengthen US-Vietnamese relations. Pham has extensive experience in both the US government and the private sector. He is a former White House Fellow and also served in the office of the US Trade Representative and the Department of Defense. In 1993, Pham established the Vietnam Forum Foundation, which provided funds for the construction of schools and college scholarships for Vietnamese students.
The Nautilus Institute has released a 1966 report by four American scientists which examined the option, considered by American policymakers at the time, to employ tactical nuclear weapons against Vietnam, specifically to attempt to shut down the “Ho Chi Minh Trail,” which was believed to be the primary artery by which North Vietnam moved troops and equipments to its allies in the South.
The report recommended against the use of nuclear weapons, citing the possibility of counter-attacks by Vietnamese forces armed with nuclear weapons provided by the Soviet Union or China, as well as the likelihood of global threats to US interests as a result of the nuclear strikes. It also opined that the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam would be opposed by the American public.
The report, which was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, can be obtained at www.nautilus.org/VietnamFOIA.