Despite the agreement last week between the United States and Vietnamese governments that appeared to address a number of important religious freedom concerns, dramatic actions still need to be taken by Vietnam before CPC (Countries of Particular Concern) designation should be altered, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) announced yesterday.
The Washington, D.C.-based agency, which was created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, said in a statement that the effect of signing this agreement is the avoidance of more stringent actions available under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), including economic sanctions, required for countries designated as countries of particular concern, or CPCs.
Vietnam was designated a CPC by the State Department in September 2004.
This was the first diplomatic agreement signed with a CPC country since the passage of IRFA, USCIRF Chair Preeta D. Bansal, in the newly released statement. The use of CPC designation as a diplomatic tool has allowed the two countries to talk seriously about religious freedom issues. However, we note that although some details of the agreement were discussed, the agreement itself is not public and the Commission has not seen it.
Moreover, the agreement only signals promises of improvement and not actual measurable progress, and from what has been announced by the State Department, it appears to leave a number of important areas of religious freedom concern unaddressed, Bansal added. The Commission will continue to consult with the State Department and the Congress on the implementation of Vietnams commitments undertaken in this agreement and calls for the creation of a monitoring mechanism to ensure that the agreement is fulfilled and other issues are resolved.
According to the USCIRF, the government of Vietnam has made several gestures in the past two months, including the release of prominent dissidents, a directive to stop forcing Protestants to recant their faith, and another to streamline the application process for religious groups registering with the government. These actions were cited by the State Department as evidence of progress.
However, important issues appear to remain unresolved or unaddressed in the agreement that had resulted in Vietnams CPC designation, the USCIRF claimed in its statement.
"Over a thousand churches, home worship centers, and meeting places remain closed, and forced or coerced renunciations of faith continue in some parts of the country," the agency said, adding that "troubling reports continue of new arrests and pressure on religious and ethnic minorities."
According to human rights groups, over a hundred individuals remain in prison or under some form of house arrest for religious activity, although actual numbers are difficult to obtain because of the lack of judicial transparency.
Evidence emerging from the Central Highlands suggests that the Prime Ministers Instructions on Protestantism is being used by security forces to compel ethnic minority Protestants to join the government-approved Protestant organization, give up their distinctive faith tradition, or face criminal penalties, the USCIRF also claimed.
Bansal said that based on the State Department's comments accompanying the release of the agreement, the Commission remains concerned that Vietnam does not appear to have made any commitments or taken positive steps in these important areas of religious freedom concern.
Tomorrow, the USCIRF will announce its 2005 recommendations to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for countries of particular concern, at an on-the-record press conference in Washington. The Commissions 2005 recommendations will include both additions to and removals from the list of recommended CPC countries, as well as the Commissions Watch List. The Commission will also release its 2005 Annual Report with policy recommendations for the President, Secretary of State, and Congress.