U.S. – Vietnam Partnership

07 December 2008

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans, Environment, and Science Claudia McMurray visited Ho Chi Minh City, Can Tho City, Lam Dong Province, and Dong Nai Province November 18 to 22 to promote environmental and scientific cooperation between the United States and Vietnam. Two specific goals of her trip were to highlight the importance of cooperation on climate change research and mitigation, and to encourage efforts to preserve wildlife, as well as combat illegal wildlife trafficking.

On November 20, Assistant Secretary McMurray participated in the inauguration of the U.S. government-funded Delta Research and Global Observation Network, or “DRAGON” Institute, in Can Tho. She told the audience the center will provide “the opportunity for scientists from the U.S. and Vietnam to work together to find solutions to the challenges climate change presents to management of each nation’s river deltas,” as the Mississippi and Mekong deltas have common vulnerabilities.

A day before Assistant Secretary McMurray arrived in Vietnam, the United States and Vietnam announced the establishment of a joint working group to study the effects of climate change. The group will operate under the U.S.-Vietnam Science and Technology Agreement signed in 2000.

Assistant Secretary McMurray also met with officials of the Ho Chi Minh City Forest Protection Department and Customs Bureau, with whom she stressed the U.S. commitment to stopping illegal wildlife trafficking, a black market trade that nets traffickers between ten and twenty billion [U.S.] dollars a year. “Some may not know this,” said Ms. McMurray, “the largest market for [illegal wildlife and wildlife products] is China but the second largest market is the U.S.”

Ms. McMurray visited the Cat Tien National Park in Dong Nai province to view rehabilitation centers for the Asian black bear and golden-cheeked gibbon. Both species are endangered because of relentless pressure from poaching for traditional Chinese medicine and the pet trade. She said the U.S.-Vietnam partnership aims to curb both the demand and supply of trafficked wildlife through steps such as wholesale advertising in the United States to raise awareness, and training Vietnamese forest protection forces and customs officials to improve crackdowns on traffickers.

During her visit, Assistant Secretary McMurray also stressed the need to balance economic growth with environmental protection. “The U.S. underwent a period of strong economic development and had conflicts between economic development and environmental development,” she said. “Vietnam should not forget the environmental issue because of economic interests.”


Vietnam rejects US rights report


HANOI (AFP) — Vietnamese authorities rejected a US State Department report criticising the communist country for curbing human rights, saying no one had been arrested for their political or religious views.

In a statement released late Thursday, foreign ministry spokesman Le Dung said the annual State Department report was not objective and based on “false and prejudiced information.”

“During the past years, Vietnam has made great achievements in ensuring and developing its citizens’ freedom in all fields, including freedom of speech, freedom of press and freedom of information, which can be clearly seen through the strong development of means of communication, especially the Internet,” he said.

“Nobody in Vietnam has been arrested for reasons relating to political views or religion, and only those who violate laws are handled in accordance with law.”

The report said last year’s parliamentary elections were neither free nor fair, and that the government was continuing to crack down on dissent, arresting political activists and forcing several dissidents to flee the country.

It also said authorities tightened their grip over the press and Internet and limited people’s rights to privacy and basic freedoms of speech, movement and assembly.

Le Dung said the report “still does not give objective observations on the real situation in Vietnam and is based on false and prejudiced information.”

Christopher Hill, US assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, Wednesday credited Vietnam during a Senate committee hearing with making great strides in economic and social reforms.

But he cautioned there were “serious deficiencies” in political and civil freedoms, citing a crackdown late last year that netted prominent Vietnamese dissidents.

U.S. to keep pressing Vietnam on jailed activists


WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States will use human rights talks with Vietnam in May to press for the release of political prisoners, including a U.S. citizen jailed last year, the top U.S. diplomat for Asia said on Wednesday.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill, who visited Hanoi this month, told a U.S. Senate hearing he had raised the jailings of Nguyen Quoc Quan of California and other democracy activists with Vietnamese authorities and would keep on pressing these and other cases.

“We will continue to push vigorously for a greater expansion of the civil and political rights of all Vietnamese citizens and for the release of all political prisoners,” Hill said in a written statement to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

Hill testified before the Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs a day after the State Department’s annual report on human rights conditions around the world said the situation in Vietnam in 2007 “remained unsatisfactory.”

“The government continued its crackdown on dissent, arresting a number of political activists and disrupting nascent opposition organizations, causing several political dissidents to flee the country,” that report said.

Hill told the subcommittee that economic and social reforms had given Vietnamese more freedom than they had enjoyed since 1975, “but there is no question that serious deficiencies remain in political and civil liberties.”

U.S. officials in May plan to conduct bilateral human rights talks in Hanoi — the third since the countries normalized relations in 1995, 20 years after the end of the Vietnam War — “without pulling any punches at all,” Hill said.

Do Hoang Diem, head of the pro-democracy group Viet Tan, whose activists were arrested last November, told the panel that Communist Vietnam’s nascent democracy movement was growing similar to those of Czechoslovakia and Poland decades earlier.

Describing last year’s arrests the worst crackdown in 20 years, he said: “Scores of democracy leaders have been imprisoned; others put under house arrest or subjected to constant harassment by the police.”

Families Adopting in Vietnam Say They Are Caught in Diplomatic Jam


WASHINGTON — Eyes like black pearls, the softest skin and little tufts of hair made it totally easy to fall in love at first sight. And that is what Julie Carroll — and Jewel McRoberts and Tommi-Lynn Sawyer — did when they saw the three tiny girls at a Vietnamese orphanage. They adopted the babies after months of waiting and then had to leave them behind because they could not obtain entry visas to bring them back to the United States.

That was almost four months ago, and the families last week began a public campaign to press the State Department to let them bring Madelyn Grace, Eden and Anabelle to the United States. Enlisting the help of the senators from California, where two of the families live, the adoptive parents argue that they have been unfairly caught in diplomatic wrangling between the American and Vietnamese governments over concerns about corruption in the adoption process that led to the suspension of Vietnamese adoptions from 2003 to 2005.

“What has happened to us is completely unconscionable,” said Mrs. Carroll, who, along with her husband, Steve, and her three other children, traveled from their Camarillo, Calif., home to campaign for a 10-month-old sister, now in foster care in Vietnam.

“We don’t have a problem with them investigating the adoption,” she said, “but we have proved there is not a shred of corruption involved in it.”

The State Department, which issued a warning on adoptions in Vietnam last month, maintains that the lack of controls on “baby finders” and unregulated payments — the average adoption cost is about $25,000 per family — are fostering baby buying. Six years ago, similar accusations led Vietnam to tighten controls on foreign adoption. At the end of 2005, Vietnam and the United States signed an adoption agreement, and nearly 1,100 Vietnamese children have been adopted by Americans since.

However, in advance of talks on renewal of the accord, which expires Sept. 1, families note that there has been a sudden increase in the federal government’s investigations of adoptions in Vietnam, preventing some babies from returning home with their adoptive parents.

Twenty-one entry visas for children have been rejected in the last two years, according to the State Department. More than half the denials have come since last October, prompting complaints that the department is singling out individual cases to embarrass the Vietnamese government into changing its adoption process.

“Everything we know now says the State Department is, frankly, using these babies as a tool in a battle that has nothing to do with these families or the children themselves,” Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, told the three families who met in her office last week.

The State Department says it is making sure babies are legitimately available for adoption.

“It would be unforgivable for us to look at a case and think something is wrong, then to let it go,” said Michele T. Bond, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for overseas services. Ms. Bond said Vietnam had never posted a schedule of adoption fees, as required in the bilateral agreement, and said documentation on how some babies came to be orphaned “is unreliable.”

The State Department warning said that embassy personnel had seen “an increase in the number of irregularities appearing in orphan petitions and visa applications,” and “significant increases in the number of abandoned children” in two provinces, including Thai Nguyen, where the three contested babies were adopted.

The Vietnamese Embassy in Washington did not return a call for comment.

Adoption agencies say they are not steering people away from Vietnamese adoptions, but some, like Children’s Home Society and Family Services of St. Paul, are not accepting new applications for Vietnam so they can handle their existing clients.

“We are encouraging people to list a second country they prefer,” said Kristine Huson, the agency’s spokeswoman, “because we don’t know what delays there might be if the agreement isn’t renewed in Vietnam.”

Under a program begun by the State Department in November, adoption agencies are telling clients to acquire their babies’ visa clearance before they arrange travel to Vietnam and complete the adoption formalities. The Orphans First program, the department said, alerts parents to problems earlier in the process. In the past, parents who legally adopted a child in Vietnam but then could not obtain an entry visa to the United States were faced with either staying indefinitely in Vietnam to resolve the problem or leaving the child there.

That is what the McRoberts family, of Seaside, Calif., faced. They adopted two little girls last September, under the previous system in which immigrant visas were the last step. Jordan, now 8 months old, received her entry visa to the United States, but Eden, also 8 months, was denied her visa on the grounds that there were discrepancies in her file.

“We were told that this denial is never reversed, and to take Eden back to the orphanage,” Mrs. McRoberts said. “It was absolutely devastating to leave her,” she said. “But I had to get Jordan back home. And I have two boys, and I hadn’t seen them in four weeks.”

She and her husband, Claude, a naval officer, paid to leave Eden in foster care instead and paid Vietnamese investigators to ascertain that she had been truly abandoned at a hospital — which, including travel, housing and other costs, could add as much as $20,000 to their costs.

The Carrolls had adopted two baby girls from the same orphanage. They were able to travel with Lillian Rose, 8 months, but Madelyn Grace, 10 months, had to be left behind in foster care.

“We’re missing out on four months of her life, all those milestones in her development,” the Carrolls told Ms. Boxer as their sons, Jeremy, 6, and Grayson, 5, played outside her office.

The McRobertses and Carrolls hired a Vietnamese law firm to investigate, as did Ms. Sawyer, a single mother from Millville, N.J. And in each case, they said, investigators found the children were legally eligible for adoption. Last month, the federal immigration agency, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, approved Madelyn Grace for a visa, but the couple said that the State Department had yet to act on that and that they had received no explanation why — so they asked Ms. Boxer and Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, to help.

Ms. Boxer said she planned to lobby the State Department to approve the visas. Her aide, Sean Moore, said he had noticed the spike in visa denials since October. Thirteen of the 21 denials occurred after Oct. 1, he said. All but seven of those have been resolved.

Among those seven families are Tom and Wendy Mills of Los Angeles, who are finding their lives upended in their effort to keep their baby. Mr. Mills, a character actor and freelance writer, stayed in Hanoi to care for Julie, 8 months old, after her visa was denied, while his wife travels back and forth keeping her accounting practice alive.

It has been “an emotional strain and a financial struggle,” Mr. Mills wrote by e-mail. “I came to Vietnam expecting to stay here for two, maybe three weeks, and now it’s been five months.”

The State Department does not comment on individual cases, but Ms. Bond said the current agreement with Vietnam needed to be reshaped to curb exploitation with, among other things, a more transparent fee structure, and to meet international standards set out in the Hague Convention, an adoptions pact. On April 1, the United States’ membership in the pact begins. Vietnam has not signed the Hague agreement.

“The goal of international adoption is to find a home for each orphaned child,” Ms. Bond said, “not to ‘produce’ a child for a family. It’s not a market.”

Vietnam pledges to improve human rights, US ties


WASHINGTON (AFP) — Vietnam pledged Wednesday to improve its human rights record and work with former battlefield enemy the United States to strengthen investment, trade and people-to-people ties.

“We have differences, but for the sake of future development of relations, we have to tackle the differences, try to find a good solution with wisdom,” said the new Vietnamese envoy to Washington, Le Cong Phung.

“Otherwise, we cannot solve the problem or we may even make it worse,” he told reporters at a rare press conference at the embassy here, a day after presenting his credentials to President George W. Bush.

Phung said Bush raised the issue of human rights and democracy at their meeting but also acknowledged that the two countries “realized the differences” and would try to resolve them through a “constructive, respectful attitude and candid way.”

“I can assure you human rights is improving … In 2008, (it) will be much better when compared to 2007. That is what my government is going to do, try to make our people (lead) happy lives,” he said.

The United States and Vietnam have a twice yearly human rights dialogue, in which Washington raises questions on religious freedom and democratic reforms in the rapidly growing Southeast Asian nation.

Angered by what it sees as a breach of promise by Hanoi to embrace reforms when it joined the World Trade Organization more than a year ago, the US House of Representatives has passed binding legislation that will tie US foreign aid to Vietnam to its human rights record.

Vietnamese Americans, a growing political force in the United States, have also been prodding lawmakers to exert more presssure on the communist government in Hanoi to improve human rights.

But Phung said it was unfair to compare the rights record of Vietnam, which went through about four decades of war after independence from France in 1945, with that of the United States, an independent nation for more than two centuries.

“We cannot have harmonized positions because our conditions and circumstances are different,” he said, adding however that he was prepared “to talk to every Vietnamese American” to understand their feelings.

Despite differences, he said Vietnam and the United States “are in the best times of their relations.”

Hanoi, he said, was determined to enhance economic, trade and investment cooperation with the United States.

Washington lifted a trade embargo in 1994 and restored full ties the next year, two decades after the fall of Saigon in the Vietnam war.

Total trade between the two countries jumped to about 10 billion dollars in 2007, with US investments in Vietnam worth around 5.6 billion dollars, Phung said.

He also said that Vietnam was inviting US groups to establish universities, colleges and training centers in Vietnam to build a pool of human resources that could complement foreign investments fuelling the economy.

Hanoi would also send more students for higher education in the United States.

There are about 6,000 Vietnamese students in the United States at present and “I will not be surprised that in the next few years, the number may be up to 10,000, maybe more,” he said.

Homeschool kids take on poverty in Vietnam


Three years ago if someone would have told the Journey homeschool co-op kids they would be buying shoes for Vietnamese children who had to walk to school barefoot in the snow, they may have scratched their heads, wondering what that person was talking about. And if the kids, who range from 2 to 12 years old, had been told they would put electricity in a school on the other side of the world, they might think that person was crazy.

But that is just what happened to this small group of kids in an area homeschool co-op that started with just five families. It was the beginning of a budding friendship between two groups of children, one large in numbers and very poor, and the other group small in size, but willing to do what they could to help meet the others’ need.

Stacy Manning of Zimmerman started Journey homeschool co-op in 2003. A year later she was driving home in a snow storm and listening to a radio interview. The young woman being interviewed, Annetta De Vet, was telling how she and her father, Chuck De Vet, started Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam (HSCV) after the two of them vacationed in Vietnam. They found a high degree of poverty in the northern part of the country, but no agency or organization that was reaching out to help meet the needs the people had.

When De Vet mentioned they had started a sister school program, Manning became even more interested. She does social work outside of homeschooling and the idea of helping the Vietnamese children through the context of school intrigued her. Manning saw the sister school concept as a great opportunity for the co-op kids to become more aware of the world at large, so she presented the idea to her co-op.

“I said, ‘You know, our kids can make a difference. We need to teach them that even though they’re kids from small town Elk River, Minn., or Otsego or Zimmerman, they can easily make a difference in a family’s life on the other side of the world,” Manning says.

The families were reluctant. At the time there were just five families in the co-op, but they decided to try it anyway.

drawing1.jpgChuck De Vet visited the co-op to tell the students about Vietnam, the children there and he brought farming implements to show the kids how Vietnamese farmers harvest rice.

“He told them how schools are run in Vietnam, and that the kids have to walk to school, many of them without shoes. By the time he was done,” Manning says, “all our kids were ready to put their shoes in a box and send them to Vietnam.”

De Vet’s presentation was eye-opening for the co-op kids in other ways, too.

The sister school, Tan Minh B, grades three through five, is located in Soc Son District which is the northernmost district of Hanoi, Vietnam. It is about the same place in the hemisphere as Minnesota, but on the other side of the world. It is also the poorest region in Vietnam.

The average monthly income for a family is between $3.14 and $6.28, depending on the quality of the rice harvest, Manning says. Sending a child to school costs $2 a month, but since education is such a high priority, parents will go without food in order to send their child to school. If there is more than one child in a poor family, parents must decide which one will go to school and who will have to miss out on an education.

One Vietnamese woman’s story was related to Manning by Annetta De Vet, who knows the woman. She says when the woman’s husband became disabled and could not work, she went to extreme measures to keep her children in school. In the early morning hours she would go into the streets of Hanoi before the city awoke to collect recyclable containers. She would then sell these to have money for school.

Winters are another harsh reality for the children of Soc Son District. Though winter temperatures are not as cold as in Minnesota, children are still forced to walk several miles in the mountainous region to school. Snow makes the barefoot walk even worse for many kids.

People do not have electricity, either, and Tan Minh B School is no exception. One Vietnamese student wrote to the kids in the co-op saying because they did not have electricity, they had to collect glow worms to put in eggshell containers so they could study.

And the school, which Manning says is not much more than a shell of walls, has no glass in any of its windows. During winter conditions, students can only stay at school a few hours because of the cold.

Manning says the co-op students got excited about helping the Vietnamese kids in their sister school after learningdrawing2.jpg more about their situation. To help alleviate some of the conditions the Vietnamese kids were faced with, the Journey homeschool kids began efforts to raise money for school supplies, food for families, and money to send more kids to school than what Vietnamese families could afford.

American funds can also provide a year’s worth of rice to a family for just $100. A Vietnamese child can go to school for a year on a $50 donation. And orthopedic problems caused by rampant malnutrition in the region can be corrected with surgery for as little as $250. Other key areas where American funds can intercept poverty in Vietnam is building a new home for $1,400, or helping someone get needed open heart surgery for $2,700.

The co-op, however, focuses on school-based needs and the kids in the Tan Minh B School. Last year the small group raised $900 from various fund raisers. One of those was a garage sale organized and manned by the homeschool students.

Parents were shocked, Manning says, at personal items their children gave toward the sale to raise money for their Vietnamese friends. She adds that the co-op kids raise or give money on their own. Funding help for the sister school does not come out of parents’ pockets. Manning says parents wanted the sister school project to rest squarely on their kids’ shoulders as a way to teach them empathy and compassion for others.

The homeschool kids promote the efforts because they believe they can help.

“I give my own money away,” 7-year-old Colin says, “and doing the garage sale. I’m glad we gave them money for lights (electricity). I would be scared if I didn’t have any lights.”

Some of that money last year was used to install electricity in part of Tan Minh B School. This year the co-op kids helped make a quilt which was auctioned off for $1,000. That should be enough to provide school supplies, food and other things like putting electricity in the rest of the school, and installing glass in all the school’s windows, according to Manning.

Helping their sister school is making an impact on the homeschool kids. Manning contends that the co-op students now have a bigger, more expansive world view than most kids their age. Sam is 11 years old and exemplifies Manning’s point.

“I help them in Vietnam because they need it more than I do, and I believe it’s right,” Sam says. “Everyone should help a little bit and the people in Vietnam would not be poor anymore.”

And 9-year-old Grace says people everywhere need help.

“We help as many people as we can find,” Grace says. “We’d help people from any country that we can because it’s the right thing to do.”

Students exchange letters, pictures they draw and a lot of goodwill toward each other. It is those small gestures of goodwill that are making a much bigger impact in the lives of those in need. Grace seems to have the right idea when she says, “it’s the right thing to do.”

To become involved in HSCV’s sister school program, or to become involved in other ways to help Vietnamese families, go to http://www.hscv.org or <!– var prefix = ‘ma’ + ‘il’ + ‘to’; var path = ‘hr’ + ‘ef’ + ‘=’; var addy32279 = ‘hscv.info’ + ‘@’; addy32279 = addy32279 + ‘hscv’ + ‘.’ + ‘org’ + ‘.’ + ”; document.write( ‘‘ ); document.write( addy32279 ); document.write( ” ); //–>\n hscv.info@hscv.org.

US criticizes Vietnam for detention of citizens for terrorism


Vietnam’s conduct in the cases of four US citizens arrested in November, questioning Vietnamese accusations they had been involved in terrorism. “We have seen no information that would support the charges of terrorism against these individuals that have been suggested by the local media,” US Ambassador Michael Michalak said at a press conference. Two Vietnamese-born US citizens, Nguyen Quoc Quan and Leon Trung, were arrested by Vietnamese authorities on November 17. Both are members of a US anti-Communist group called the Viet Tan party, which says they were discussing strategies for peaceful democratic protests. The Vietnamese government accuse them of involvement in terrorism. No formal charges have been made public. Michalak said the US would protest “any actions taken to silence those engaged in the peaceful expression of political views.”The other two detained US citizens, Nguyen Thi Thinh and Le Van Phan, were arrested at the airport in Ho Chi Minh City on November 23, after a firearm and ammunition were reportedly found in their luggage. The Viet Tan party says Thinh and Phan have nothing to do with their group. Michalak also noted Vietnam’s failure to allow the four detainees to contact the US consulate within 48 hours, as mandated by the Vienna Convention. US consular officials were not permitted to visit any of the detainees until December 4. Elsewhere Tuesday, two Vietnamese courts in the southern province of Dong Nai sentenced seven activists to several years each in prison, on charges of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State.”Four of those sentenced were active in the United Workers-Farmers Organization, an independent labour union established in 2006. Amnesty International and other human rights groups have protested their arrests. The detentions present the United States with an obstacle to its cultivation of better relations with Vietnam, a country with which it enjoys increasing trade and diplomatic ties. The US is seeking Vietnamese cooperation on counter-terrorism efforts and on an American anti-nuclear proliferation initiative. Earlier Tuesday, Michalak gave a speech at the opening of a seminar on Vietnam’s upcoming role as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. Vietnam will assume a seat on the Security Council in October, and will hold it for two years. “A nation does not participate on the security council solely to advance its own interests, but rather to serve the greater interests of the world community,” Michalak said. According to Assistant Secretary of State Stephen Mull, who visited Vietnam earlier this month, the US would like Vietnam to begin sending troops to participate in UN peace-keeping missions.