Congressman slams US hypocrisy on human rights

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Says new bill on Vietnam self-defeating, could undermine US regional interests

  Agent Orange victims help each other down the stairs at the Friendship village, a hospice for Agent Orange victims outside Hanoi. Analysts said the primary rationale for the US to become involved in the project is related to cozying up to its former foe in view of China's growing "˜influence' in the Asia Pacific region. Photo: Reuters

A bill on human rights in Vietnam passed by the US House of Representatives on September 11 is "flawed" and based on inaccurate information, a congressman has said.

Congressman Eni Faleomavaega of the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, said the Vietnam Human Rights Act of 2011(H.R. 1410) is "the wrong way forward" and "fails in its purpose."

The bill, promoted by the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights, envisages imposing certain limitations on foreign aid and limiting non-humanitarian assistance to Vietnam unless the US government ensures Vietnam "has made progress towards promoting democracy and human rights."

Faleomavaega noted that the bill was offered by the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights, "although the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific has broad jurisdiction for US policy affecting Vietnam.

"It is unfortunate that the Africa Subcommittee had no interest in obtaining more accurate information before putting a flawed bill like this forward," he said in a statement released last week.

Faleomavaega, a Samoan representative and a Vietnam War veteran, also said that on the issue of human rights, the US cannot assume the moral high ground, especially when it comes to Vietnam.

He said the authors would be better advised to try and address a human rights violation that the US committed five decades ago, the effects of which linger until today the use of Agent Orange, a defoliant containing the highly toxic substance dioxin.

In an earlier interview with Vietweek he had described the US spraying campaign as "chemical warfare," something the US routinely accuses "rogue" countries of planning or implementing.

Between 1961 and 1971, the US Army sprayed some 80 million liters of Agent Orange containing 366 kilograms of the highly toxic dioxin over 30,000 square miles of southern Vietnam.

"Despite the suffering that has occurred ever since, there seems to be no real interest on the part of the US to clean up the mess we left behind," Faleomavaega said.

"In the US House of Representatives, I hope that the advocates of H.R. 1410 if they are truly sincere about human rights will apply their efforts to assisting Vietnam with Agent Orange cleanup because the mess we left behind is a serious violation of human rights that needs to be corrected once and for all."

Likely to fail

A bill has to have the full support of both houses of Congress for it to become an act - and then has to be signed by US President, who has veto power over acts of Congress that he can exercise.

Mart Stewart, a history professor at the Western Washington University, said even though this bill has passed the House of Representatives, it is likely to fail in the Senate which has the final say on any legislation having to do with foreign policy.

"Thankfully, the bill is not law, and it is highly unlikely that it will ever become law in its present form," Faleomavaega said, "[because it is]"¦ contrary to the efforts of the [Obama administration] which [has] sought to strengthen our partnership with Vietnam."

37 years after the Vietnam War ended, the US last month began the first project to clean up the soil at a former American airbase in Da Nang which is heavily contaminated with Agent Orange.

It happened after the Obama administration announced a "pivot" toward the economically resilient Asia-Pacific region and amidst rising tensions between Vietnam and China in the East Sea, also known as the South China Sea, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves and straddles vital global shipping lines.

Analysts said the primary rationale for the US to become involved in the Da Nang dioxin cleanup is related to cozying up to its former foe in view of China's growing "˜influence' in the Asia Pacific region.

"It is certainly a highly plausible surmise," American political author Noam Chomsky wrote to Vietweek in an email.

Washington has tried to assure Beijing that its shift in focus was not an attempt to hem in the latter.

"Our rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region is not an attempt to contain China," US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday during his visit to Beijing to strengthen military cooperation.

"It is an attempt to engage China and expand its role in the Pacific. It is about creating a new model in the relationship of two Pacific powers," Panetta was quoted by Reuters as saying.

This message would be tough sell to a skeptical Chinese audience and Panetta's pragmatic fellow colleagues at home.

 "Long after the Vietnam War, the US is now about the business of coordinating a multi-country diplomatic push back against Chinese encroachment in the oil-rich and strategically important South China Sea," Faleomavaega said in the statement reacting to the bill on Vietnam's human rights.

 "The bill could chill the recent warming of bilateral political and security ties," he said, citing the Congressional Research Service.

"[It] is not helpful to our cause."

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