Washington International Law Journal


Kevin V. Tu


Following the signing of the Paris Peace Accord in 1973, the relationship between the United States and Vietnam remained essentially frozen. In 2000, the signing of the United States-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement was an epic step in the normalization of relations. In addition, the BTA was hailed as a means of effectuating positive change in the area of Vietnam's human rights. Unfortunately, the state of religious freedom in Vietnam has deteriorated while economic ties with the United States have strengthened. Despite Vietnam's purported respect for religious freedom, violations continue. Vietnam restricts the practice of religion, detains religious leaders, and tolerates forced renunciations of faith by local officials. These acts violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Vietnam has acceded. Vietnam's violations of the right to religious freedom have also drawn the concern of the international community. Specifically, the United States has called for improvements in Vietnam's religious rights record, utilizing diplomatic mean coupled with continued engagement in the hopes that Vietnam will voluntarily enact changes. However, this approach has failed to yield concrete progress. In 2004, the U.S. Department of State designated Vietnam a Country of Particular Concern as provided in the International Religious Freedom Act. Because the IRFA mandates affirmative action against violators of religious freedom, the United States must abandon constructive engagement in Vietnam. Instead, the IRFA provides the framework for opposing violations under the responsible engagement doctrine. In doing so, the United States may employ economic pressure to narrowly target violators, while allowing the liberalizing effect of engagement to continue where it does not sustain violations. By fully implementing the IRFA in accordance with the tenets of responsible engagement, the United States would actively oppose violations rather than engaging Vietnam with the hope that improvements will occur. Moreover, this extreme makeover of current policy would balance the dual interests of improved religious freedom and bilateral relations.

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