Abbott has a habit of honouring authoritarians. Will Vietnam be different? 

Elaine Pearson
Tuesday 17 March 2015

The visit of the Vietnamese prime minister to Australia is an opportunity for Tony Abbott to correct the approach he took to human rights abuses in Sri Lanka

When Australian prime minister Tony Abbott meets his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Tan Dung in Canberra this week will he simply praise Vietnam’s economic progress while staying silent about its deplorable human rights situation? It’s all too likely. After all, the Australian government has made a habit of honouring countries like Cambodia, Sri Lanka and China as “good friends” of Australia while ignoring their poor rights records.

Our “friends” shouldn’t get off so easily. Vietnam is one of the world’s few remaining one-party communist states. For nine years, Dung has overseen the suppression of basic freedoms, widespread censorship, and control of religion. More than 100 political prisoners are currently behind bars in Vietnam.

In prison are women like 48-year-old Ho Thi Bich Khuong, a blogger and land rights activist who has exposed suffering of farmers kicked off their land, showing the largely invisible human cost of Vietnam’s rapid economy growth. The Vietnamese authorities have reacted to Khuong’s efforts with repression and prosecution: she has been in and out of jail, and is currently serving a five-year sentence for “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”

Also imprisoned is 46-year-old Mai Thi Dung, a Buddhist activist. The Vietnamese government routinely monitors and harasses religious groups that operate outside the official government-registered religions her independent Hoa Hao group has faced intrusive police surveillance and intimidation. The courts sentenced her to a total of 11 years in prison for her role in Hoa Hao protests.

The Australian government is well aware of the problems faced by activists like these. Australia supposedly raises political prisoner cases during forums such as the annual Australia-Vietnam human rights dialogue. But those closed-door discussions between mid-level officials are largely a theatrical exercise.

Indeed, in a cynical affront to the very spirit of a human rights dialogue, last year Vietnamese authorities prevented several activists from joining a workshop on media freedom partially hosted by the Australian government.

This dialogue, like Australia’s other human rights dialogues with China and Laos, suffers from a credibility gap because of a lack of transparency about what’s actually discussed, and a failure to provide clear public benchmarks to measure incremental progress on rights.

The dialogue’s existence does not mean Abbott and Julie Bishop, the foreign minister, should shy away from raising these cases with Dung during his visit. Abbott has talked a lot about the importance of freedoms of speech and expression in Australia. The people of Vietnam are in desperate need of these freedoms, which have been trampled by the government.

By any account Vietnam has made little to no progress on issues like freedom of expression and religion, with critics of the government inevitably ending up in prison for their dissent. If Australian leaders fail to back up private discussions with public statements of grave concern, it’s not only a missed opportunity, but a failure to stand up for the repressed Vietnamese people.

Australia should of course seek to have good relations with its neighbours. That also means raising human rights concerns – that is to say, being friends with the whole population of Vietnam, not just its rulers.

Benign statements of friendship with authoritarians do have consequences for the populations of authoritarian regimes. When the Australian government lauded Sri Lanka’s former president Mahinda Rajapaksa while downplaying his government’s atrocities in the country’s civil war, this gave political cover to his ongoing crackdown on government critics and defiance of international pressure for a UN inquiry into war crimes.

With Rajapaksa’s defeat in the last election, and a new Sri Lankan government that has spoken out against Australia’s silence on human rights abuses, Australia now looks to be on the wrong side of history. “When human rights were being trampled, and democracy was at bay, these countries were silent. That is an issue for Sri Lanka,” new prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said in February.

Australia, of course, has its own serious human rights shortcomings, including its treatment of refugees and Indigenous people. A country’s own human rights problems should not be an excuse for ignoring human rights violations elsewhere.

Both public and private messages conveyed to Dung during this visit matter very much – to the Vietnamese people as well as the government. Raising human rights concerns is not “lecturing”, as Abbott is wont to say. It’s about taking a consistent and principled position on fundamental rights that all nations, including Vietnam, have agreed to uphold.

Tony Abbott defends $11bn cut to foreign aid during Vietnamese PM’s visit

Calla Wahlquist
Wednesday 18 March 2015

Tony Abbott has defended his government’s decision to cut Australia’s foreign aid budget by $11bn at a joint press conference with the Vietnamese prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung.

Dung and Abbott addressed the media after a formal ceremony, where the former signed a “declaration on enhancing the comprehensive partnership” between the two countries with the foreign minister, Julie Bishop.

Asked if he was embarrassed to explain Australia’s reduced aid budget to Dung, Abbott said Australia had made “modest reductions” but that remaining aid would focus on countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including Vietnam.

“Look, obviously it’s important for all countries to ensure that their own domestic economic house is in order, because if you don’t have your domestic economic house in order, it’s very difficult to be a good friend and neighbour abroad,” Abbott said.

Abbott said it was important to remember the “objective” of aid, saying, “the objective of aid is not to create a relationship of permanent dependency, the objective of aid is to ensure that countries are helped to develop to the point where they don’t need aid any more”.

“And obviously the very strong economic growth that Vietnam has enjoyed in the past few years, particularly under the economic stewardship of prime minister Dung, means that the need for this kind of aid will be less and less as the years go on”

Dung, who was listening through a translator and offered a small smile at the end of Abbott’s response, declined to answer the question directed at him which asked if he was concerned at the effect aid cuts would have on Vietnamese people.

Australia gave about $140m in aid to Vietnam in the 2014/15 budget.

The declaration reaffirmed Australia’s trade, security, education and cultural ties to Vietnam.

Speaking through a translator, Dung said the declaration would “further deepen” ties between the two countries and made particular reference to the education and agricultural sectors, as well as increased cooperation in security and defence operations.

Chief among those concerns were freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and an agreement to “exercise self-restraint and refrain from anything that may inflame tensions in the region”.

Abbott said the Australian-Vietnamese relationship was going “from strength to strength” and would be enhanced by the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is still being negotiated.

“We have both prospered in peace over the last 40 years because of the stability that our region has enjoyed, and anything which destroys that stability is something we would mutually deplore and mutually work to ensure didn’t happen,” he said.

Dung’s delegation was met by human rights protesters when it arrived at Parliament House on Wednesday morning. The protesters, a large number of whom were Vietnamese-Australians, circulated this month’s report of the UN special rapporteur on the freedom of religion and belief, which found that “the scope of freedom of religion and belief remains extremely limited and unsafe” in Vietnam.

The special rapporteur, Heiner Bielefeldt, said Vietnam breached the terms of his visit to allow him confidential and unsupervised contact with people, saying some he met with had suffered “intimidation, police interrogations and even physical injuries” before and after his visit.

Vietnam did not support the report.