US House moves to press Vietnam on rights
US lawmakers moved forward Wednesday on a bill that would curb aid to Vietnam unless it improves its human rights record, raising concern over the treatment of dissidents and religious practitioners.
The proposal would block any increase in non-humanitarian US assistance beyond 2011 levels unless the State Department certifies that Vietnam has made "substantial progress" in respecting freedom of religion and expression and that the Hanoi government is working against human trafficking.
"It is imperative that the United States government send an unequivocal message to the Vietnamese regime that it must end its human rights abuses against its own citizens," Representative Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey who sponsored the bill, told a hearing.
A House subcommittee on human rights led by Smith approved the proposal with support from both major parties. The bill still needs passage by the full House Foreign Affairs Committee, and then the full House and Senate.
The House has approved the bill twice in previous sessions, but it has died in the Senate.
The draft bill seeks Vietnam's release of prisoners detained "for their peaceful advocacy of religious freedom, democracy and human rights" including outspoken Catholic priest Nguyen Van Ly.
The proposal also voices concern about restrictions on press freedom and the treatment of Buddhist clergy and churches, including those of the minority Montagnard and Hmong ethnicities.
A Vietnamese woman, testifying last month to a House panel, accused Hanoi authorities of complicity in human trafficking after she was sent to a factory in Jordan where she said she worked day and night for little pay.
Vietnam and the United States have been building closer relations, putting aside bitter memories of war, amid friction between Hanoi and Beijing over territorial claims in the South China Sea.
President Barack Obama's administration has repeatedly called on Vietnam to address human rights concerns, although it has also pushed ahead with greater cooperation with Hanoi including in military exchanges.
The US Agency for International Development said that the United States provided $134 million for Vietnam in the 2010 fiscal year, more than half of it devoted to improving health and child survival. The agency requested $125 million for 2012.
Agence France Presse - February 10, 2012