May 15, 2012
The State Department’s top human rights official was forced to go off script and meet with the wife of an American citizen imprisoned in Vietnam during a contentious human rights hearing Tuesday.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) called the hearing of the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission to rip into the Obama administration’s handling of human rights and religious freedom abuses in Vietnam. During the hearing, Wolf criticized the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam and demanded that Michael Posner, the Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, meet with Mai Huong Ngo, who was in the audience.
“Well, Michael, I tell you, if this administration doesn’t push this, you are basically endangering every American citizen that goes to these dictatorial countries,” Wolf told Posner after Mai said that neither Ambassador David Shear nor any Washington officials had contacted her before Tuesday’s hearing.
Mai’s husband, democracy activist Nguyen Quoc Quan, was arrested April 17 upon arriving in Vietnam and accused of terrorism.
The arrest comes as lawmakers of both parties are expressing concerns that the Obama administration is turning a blind eye to deteriorating human rights conditions in Vietnam as the U.S. seeks economic and strategic partners to counter a rising China. Issues of concern, Posner testified, include:
• The detention of about 100 prisoners of conscience;
• Censorship of print media and restrictions on access to television and Internet content;
• Vague laws that allow the government to target its critics; and
• Restrictions on religious freedom, including harassment of Christian groups.
When Shear was confirmed last year, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) spearheaded a letter signed by more than a dozen lawmakers urging him to prioritize human rights and religious freedoms. Sanchez also criticized the State Department for choosing not to designate Vietnam as a "Country of Particular Concern" in its 2011 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom despite recommendations from Congress and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Wolf and Sanchez both represent sizable Vietnamese expatriate communities.
Posner defended the administration and the ambassador during the hearing.
“We continue to view the situation on human rights as discouraging and unacceptable,” Posner said. “Our government officials are repeatedly raising these issues [and] we’ve made it clear to the government of Vietnam that our joint desire to have a closer strategic relationship is dependent on their making substantial progress on human rights. We are not satisfied that that’s happening.”
By Julian Pecquet for The Hill’s Global Affairs