Say a prayer for Vietnam
By Preeta D Bansal and Richard D Land
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WASHINGTON - Days after taking up the presidency of
the United Nations Security Council in a long-sought affirmation of
its international standing, the government of Vietnam issued dark warnings
to Buddhist leaders not to turn the funeral of the 87-year-old patriarch
of their banned church into an "anti-government rally".
Instead of issuing threats to continue its abuse of international norms
on religious freedom, the government should end its unjustified re strictions
on Vietnam's largest Buddhist organization, the United Buddhist Church
of Vietnam (UBCV). In assuming its prominent position at the UN this
month, Vietnam should be protecting, not violating, fundamental freedoms.
The latest government threat to the UBCV follows the death of The Most
Venerable Thich Huyen Quang, the supreme patriarch of the UBCV and a
widely respected champion of freedom and human rights. For his peaceful
advocacy, he spent half his life in detention or prison, first under
the French colonial authorities, then under the South Vietnamese government,
and finally under the communist government. He died on July 5 in the
monastery where he had been detained since 2003.
The new presumptive leader, Thich Quang Do, and most other senior UBCV
leaders, are also under a form of detention. Even their recent efforts
to organize provincial-level charitable and youth organizations have
met with government harassment, intimidation and detentions. Hanoi v
iews the peaceful monks' advocacy of freedom and human rights as a threat
to government "stability". Millions of Vietnamese, in contrast,
see the UBCV as a much-needed spiritual and humanitarian organization.
The death of Thich Huyen Quang offers the Vietnamese government a rare
opportunity to honor a tireless advocate for human rights by allowing
the UBCV to exercise freedom of religion according to international
norms to freely select its own leadership and carry out its activities
without interference. Sadly, this is unlikely to happen.
The US government continues to publicly praise Vietnam for the progress
made expanding protections for its diverse religious communities. During
a visit to the United States last month by Vietnamese Prime Minister
Nguyen Tan Dung, US President George W Bush extolled the Vietnamese
government's efforts to advance religious freedom.
Such a statement, however, does not reflect facts on the ground. The
US Commission on Interna tional Religious Freedom, an independent federal
body, traveled to Vietnam late last year and met with senior government
and religious leaders, including from the UBCV, as well as with members
of Vietnam's civil society. At least 30 human-rights, democracy, religious
freedom and labor advocates have been imprisoned for more than a year
following their arrests in 2007, and others are under constant surveillance.
Religious adherents and communities in Vietnam also continue to experience
government interference, intimidation, and heavy intrusive surveillance,
particularly those who peacefully advocate for greater religious freedom
or seek to organize independently of government oversight. Dozens of
individuals are in prison or detention for reasons related to their
religious activity or religious freedom advocacy, despite the US State
Department's insistence that there are no longer any so-called "prisoners
of concern" in Vietnam.
The harassment and detention of UBCV m onks and the abuses still experienced
by Vietnam's diverse religious communities directly contradict the claim
that religious freedom conditions in Vietnam have improved so substantially
as to warrant removing the country from the list of religious freedom
violators. Buddhism is the primary religion among Vietnam's 86 million
people and the continued suppression of the UBCV remains an obvious
blight on the country's human-rights record that must not be ignored.
Between 2004 and 2006, the United States designated Vietnam as a country
of particular concern (CPC) under the 1998 International Religious Freedom
Act. This designation requires the US to take enhanced diplomatic action
and includes sanctions and incentives for countries to engage the US
on ways to protect this fundamental freedom.
Vietnam took several positive steps to expand religious freedom until
2006, when the CPC designation was lifted. Thereafter, religious freedom
progress stalled: prisoners remained in jail, new arrests were made,
and many of Vietnam's diverse religious communities once again faced
restrictions. The Commission on International Religious Freedom found
that the Bush administration acted too soon and recommended that it
re-designate Vietnam as a CPC.
As the US-Vietnamese relationship grows, the US should think more clearly
about how to shape its policies to press the Vietnamese government to
cease its severe violations of religious freedom, including the arbitrary
detention of dissidents, and to expand legal protections consistent
with internationally recognized human rights.
The courageous UBCV leaders and monks and their followers deserve the
right to practice their religion freely, without fear of official harassment
and arrest, as international statutes provide. American policies and
programs should show - in word and deed - that the US stands firmly
on the side of liberty, freedom, and human rights in Vietnam.
Preeta D Bansal, a part ner at the international law firm of Skadden,
Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, and Dr Richard D Land, president
of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission,
are members of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.