When President Obama stood beside Tran Dai Quang, the Vietnamese leader, on Monday and announced the end of America’s arms embargo on Vietnam, he did so despite pleas from human-rights groups to delay a decision until the Communist regime released political prisoners.
Obama portrayed the decision as one based on removing one of the last vestiges of the war, which ended in 1975 with the fall of Saigon. The U.S. would wait two more decades to restore diplomatic relations with its Cold War-era adversary, and it wasn’t until 2000 that an American president, Bill Clinton, visited Vietnam. Six years after that, President George W. Bush followed suit. And while the U.S. has engaged in trade with Vietnam, and has become, in fact, one of the country’s largest trading partners, it maintained the embargo for years, saying its removal depended on improvements in Vietnam’s human-rights record. In recent years, the country has imprisoned more than 100 political dissidents and has cracked down on dissenting speech online—though Human Rights Watch notes an “increasing numbers of bloggers and activists have called publicly for democracy and greater freedoms.”
Obama acknowledged the two countries “still have differences” on human rights. Indeed, as The New York Times reported Tuesday, some of those differences were grounded in the fact that while Obama met with six activists in Hanoi, several others who were scheduled to meet with him were prevented by Vietnamese authorities from doing so. Human Rights Watch, which regards Vietnam’s human-rights record as “dire in all areas,” identified them as Pham Doan Trang, Nguyen Quang, and Ha Huy Son. The organization has been especially critical of Obama’s visit, as is clear in this tweet by its executive director.
Sadly, this pretty much sums up Obama's lifting the Vietnam arms embargo for no real progress on human rights. pic.twitter.com/EmXTFZs3Vu— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) May 24, 2016
But human-rights concerns notwithstanding, Obama’s decision on the arms embargo may have to do as much with Vietnam’s strategic importance as its capacity to buy weapons, and the president’s famous pivot toward Asia.