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U.S. and Vietnam Share Human Rights Agenda | Commentary

Visiting Vietnam last December, 44 years after he first arrived as a U.S. Navy officer, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke movingly about how our nations are putting the past behind us.

Addressing business people and students, Secretary Kerry said, “I can’t think of two countries that have worked harder, done more and done better to try to bring themselves together and change history.”

Once adversaries, now partners, the U.S. and Vietnam are working together in a Comprehensive Partnership on economics, energy, the environment and international security. However, given our political, historical and cultural differences, it is understandable that there remain challenges, such as human rights.

After more than eight decades of colonial rule and more than four decades of wars, Vietnam understands the importance and value of human rights. We are engaging with the administration and Congress, taking serious steps to further human rights in our country. Vietnam aspires to be a state of the people, by the people and for the people — a goal that is at the heart of the American heritage and enshrined in Vietnam’s legal system. In 2013, after receiving more than 26 million comments from our citizens on the Internet, our National Assembly adopted a new Constitution, with its entire Chapter II devoted to 36 provisions dedicated to citizens’ rights.

As a great American President, Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized freedom of speech and freedom of worship go hand-in-hand with freedom from fear and freedom from want. Vietnam’s economy is growing by an average of five to six percent annually, creating one million new jobs a year. From 2008 to 2012, average annual per capita income grew by 50 percent, and poverty declined by four percentage points. Economic growth allows Vietnam to invest more in the human development that is the cornerstone for human rights.

And Vietnam is one of the model nations in achieving the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals. Vietnam outperforms countries with significantly higher income levels in education and health care outcomes. The country has achieved — ahead of the deadlines — most of the goals, most notably in poverty reduction, universal primary education, gender equality, maternal and child care, and control of malaria and other epidemics.

Vietnam has joined seven of nine United Nations Treaties on Human Rights, ratifying international conventions protecting the rights of women, children, and people with disabilities and prohibiting torture and human trafficking. We have participated in successive Universal Periodic Reviews by the United Nations Human Rights Council and are implementing their recommendations. Last year, Vietnam joined the UN Convention against torture, and we are amending the penal code, reducing the number of crimes punishable by death. In 2013, Vietnam became a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Vietnam has already made great strides on fundamental freedoms. As we create a more open environment for Buddhists, Roman Catholics, Protestants and other faiths, the number of houses of worship for all these religions has increased to more than 25,000. As the 2012 State Department Report on Religious Freedom recognizes: “The Constitution and other laws and policies (of Vietnam) provide for religious freedom” and “the government also showed signs of progress: it registered new congregations, permitted the expansion of charitable activities, and allowed large-scale worship services with more than 100,000 participants.” Recently, the interim representative committee of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon Church) was recognized in Vietnam.

Reflecting the freedom of expression and information, by the end of 2013, there were a total of 997 print newspapers, nearly 17,000 registered journalists, 101 TV and 78 radio channels, 74 electronic newspapers and magazines, 336 social networks and 1,174 e-portals. The number of Internet users has reached 30.8 million, more than a third of the population, and Vietnam’s internet penetration rate is growing fast.

Protecting workers’ rights, the National Assembly adopted a Labor Code in 2012 that provides for collective bargaining through trade unions and makes it mandatory for companies to exchange information and consult with their employees about their working conditions. With women comprising almost a quarter of the members of the National Assembly, Vietnam is pursuing a national strategy on gender equality in accordance with our own 2006 law and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Given our political, historical and cultural differences, it is understandable that the U.S. and Vietnam have differences on human rights. But the two countries have developed constructive channels for discussing the issue, including the annual U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue, which was most recently held on May 12 and 13 in Washington, D.C.

For emerging nations, such as the U.S. more than two centuries ago and Vietnam today, human rights is a continuing journey, not a final destination. The key to our comprehensive partnership is that we should make progress on all fronts, including human rights, but that no one element of the partnership should be held hostage to progress on the others. Let us make that journey together as partners, without being detoured by disagreements about how to achieve the human rights that people everywhere deserve.

Nguyen Quoc Cuong is Vietnam’s ambassador to the United States.