.- A bill to encourage freedom and respect for human rights, including religious liberty, in communist-run Vietnam was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives on Sept. 11.
"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," said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who authored the bill.
Smith, who chairs a House subcommittee on human rights, explained that the bill would place limitations on U.S. aid to Vietnam until the government improves its human rights record, while at the same time allowing humanitarian assistance to continue as needed.
In a discussion on the House floor, Smith pointed to a hearing held earlier this year, at which witnesses testified about the nation’s continuing and sometimes increasing persecution of religious and political dissenters, as well as the Vietnamese government's failure to investigate and persecute human trafficking violations.
The Vietnam Human Rights Act of 2012 states that Vietnam's "transition toward greater economic freedom and trade has not been matched by greater political freedom and substantial improvements in basic human rights for Vietnamese citizens."
It also observes that the U.S. had agreed to Vietnam’s acceptance into the World Trade Organization in 2006 “amidst assurances that the Government of Vietnam was steadily improving its human rights record and would continue to do so.”
However, six years later, actions taken by the Communist Party of Vietnam continue to raise serious concerns about respect for human rights within the country, it says.
The legislation lists examples of the arbitrary arrests and imprisonments of numerous individuals - including Father Nguyen Van Ly – who has peacefully advocated religious freedom and human rights in the country.
It also notes "a pattern of violent responses by the Government to peaceful prayer vigils and demonstrations by Catholics" whose property had been confiscated by the state.
"Protesters have been harassed, beaten, and detained and church properties have been destroyed," the bill says.
"Catholics also continue to face some restrictions on selection of clergy, the establishment of seminaries and seminary candidates, and individual cases of travel and church registration," it adds.
In one 2010 case, more than 100 villagers in a Catholic parish in Da Nang were injured and at least three were killed in the violence that erupted as police tried to prevent a religious burial in the village cemetery.
The legislation also draws attention to the persecution of other religious minorities in the country, as well as attempts to intimidate and silence political dissenters and continuing problems with human trafficking.
The bill, which drew bipartisan support, prohibits an increase in non-humanitarian assistance to the Vietnamese government unless it makes "substantial progress" towards securing human rights within the country.
These improvements would require a repeal of laws that prohibit peaceful demonstrations and “unsanctioned religious activity,” as well as the release of religious and political prisoners.
In addition, the legislation would demand significant government improvement in the area of respecting fundamental rights, including the freedom of religious expression.
It would also require the Vietnamese government to respect the human rights of ethnic minorities and improve its work to fight human trafficking.
While blocking an increase in U.S. funds, the bill would allow for increased humanitarian aid for food, water and medicine if deemed necessary.
Smith praised the passage of the bill, which he described as an important step in implementing “effective measures towards improving human rights in Vietnam.”