WASHINGTON – Vietnam's desire to be in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade pact is the best leverage Washington has to press for improved human rights there, a senior U.S. official said.
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Tom Malinowski, the State Department's point man on human rights, told reporters that Vietnam has shown greater restraint in arrests and prosecution of dissent this year as deliberations on the 12-nation pact enter their closing stages.
But Malinowski called the human rights progress "very fragile" and said the U.S. is looking for positive steps from Vietnam in the weeks ahead on releasing political prisoners and in how its security forces deal with critics of the Communist government.
Vietnam has yet to meet requirements for TPP on labor standards, including the right to form independent unions that can bargain collectively, Malinowski said. But he said he was "fairly confident" it would happen because the benefits of TPP membership outweigh the risks to Vietnam's government.
Malinowski called it a critical moment in the U.S.-Vietnam relationship.
"Absent TPP, I think we have very little chance of keeping this very fragile progress in Vietnam going. With it, I think we've got a chance," he said.
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Malinowski returned this week from human rights discussions with Vietnamese officials. He met with two political prisoners, activists and minority religious leaders.
Former enemies U.S. and Vietnam have deepened ties as they find common cause in countering a rising China, but there is opposition in Congress to full normalization when there is repression and restrictions on religious freedom. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the resumption of diplomatic ties.
Malinowski said there are just over 100 "prisoners of conscience" in Vietnam today, down from more than 160 in 2013. Convictions have dropped from 61 in 2013, to none so far this year, he said, but added that activists still face harassment, threats and beatings.
Vietnam's ambassador to the U.S., Pham Quang Vinh, told a Washington think tank in March that everyone is equal under the law in Vietnam and there are no prisoners of conscience.
John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said there have been limited improvements in Vietnam, but it remains a one-party state where critics are thrown in jail. He said three bloggers were convicted in February under an article of the criminal code used to punish freedom of expression.
Sifton agreed that TPP does offer leverage to Washington to seek improvements in human rights, but he contended that some of trade benefits should be withheld until Vietnam follows through on prospective reforms and demonstrates, for example, it is allowing labor unions to operate freely.