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Vietnam cuts a deal

"Vietnam cuts a deal" Continued...

Issue: "An evolving debate," May 21, 2005

Nonetheless, branding Vietnam a heavy-duty persecutor-with the threat of trade and other sanctions-has drawn the country to the negotiating table. Growing trade with the United States has become leverage for pliancy on human rights.

In 2001, the two countries signed a bilateral trade agreement. Within two years, Vietnam's exports to the United States had more than quadrupled to $4.6 billion. In 2003, two-way trade was $6 billion.

"There's a fear economic interests will trump religious interests, so we're reminding the State Department economic rights should not precede human rights," said Roger Severino, legal counsel at the Washington-based law firm, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Warming relations with the former enemy will culminate in a state visit to Washington by Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai next month, the first since the Vietnam War ended in 1975. In Vietnam's reckoning, securing trade with the United States will help shore up its export economy, under threat from China.

Before Mr. Khai hits U.S. soil, human-rights groups want more from Vietnam. A dozen have signed a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asking that 500 closed churches and worship points in Vietnam's Central Highlands and Northwest Provinces be re-opened and allowed to register by June, with a further 500 opened six months later. The groups include the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Freedom House, the Becket Fund, and Vietnamese-American human-rights organizations.

The letter also asks the government to free jailed Buddhist believers and allow them to meet, and to permit Christian minorities fearing persecution to emigrate from the country without harassment.

To see that Vietnam upholds its end of the agreement, human-rights groups propose forming a collaborative monitoring group built on the U.S. Helsinki Commission model. The commission is a U.S. government agency designed to track compliance with human-rights commitments made by the United States and European countries dating to 1975.

"What exactly is agreed to, from what we can see so far, stops short of fully guaranteeing religious freedom for the Vietnamese people," Mr. Severino said. "These concrete, measurable steps need to be included in any agreement if Vietnam is to be welcomed as a member of the international community."

Mr. Hanford stresses that "implementation will be key" in assessing Vietnam's progress. "Only time will tell if these new laws . . . play out." Mr. Hanford said he believes that monitoring by the U.S. embassy in Hanoi and reporting from local groups are enough to track compliance with the agreement.

The big question is whether the agreement is enough to prevent Washington from designating Vietnam one of the world's worst persecutors again this year. Some say Vietnam has not earned its way off the list. But the USCIRF still holds that its original recommendations are in order: barring officials responsible for abuses from entering the United States, and re-aligning humanitarian aid to focus on fostering human rights.

For now, the U.S.-Vietnam agreement for many oppressed Christians is still too good to be true. Ms. Lien won a tenuous amnesty, but two pastors-arrested last year in a group known as the "Mennonite Six"-remain in custody.

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