On July 9th, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) who represents the 10th District since 1981 (and is up for reelection) in northern Virginia, the home to many Vietnamese-Americans has called for the firing of the US Ambassador to Vietnam David Shear. This is not the first time, he has done this, of course. In May this year, Congressman Wolf had also called for Ambassador Shear’s sacking.
If we fire our diplomats every time a congressman is upset with a career diplomat, we won’t have anyone left to run our embassies.
According to Congressman Wolf’s office, Ambassador David Shear should be removed because he has “repeatedly failed to advocate for human rights and speak out for the voiceless in Vietnam.” Wolf recommended that Shear be replaced by a Vietnamese-American.
In his letter to President Obama, Congressman Wolf was particularly upset by 1) Ambassador Shear’s “failure to invite more dissidents and human rights activists” to the U.S. Embassy for a July 4 celebration after promising that he would; and 2) was disappointed in Ambassador Shear’s handling of the case of Dr. Nguyen Quoc Quan, a Vietanmese-American democracy activist and U.S. citizen presently being held by the Vietnamese government.
Below is an excerpt from Congressman Wolf’s letter to the WH with some photos we’ve dug up online from the US Embassy Vietnam:
I have long believed that U.S. embassies should be islands of freedom – especially in repressive countries like Vietnam. Under Ambassador Shear’s leadership it didn’t appear that the U.S. embassy in Hanoi was embracing this important task. But even more troubling is the fact that Dr. Quan is an American citizen, and yet there appeared to be little urgency to securing his release.
In speaking by phone with Ambassador Shear following the hearing I expressed my concerns and urged him to host a July 4th celebration at the embassy, where the guest list was comprised of religious freedom and democracy activists in Vietnam. I stressed that he should fling open the doors of the embassy and invite Buddhist monks and nuns, Catholic priests and Protestant pastors, Internet bloggers and democracy activists. Such was the custom during the Reagan Administration, especially in the Soviet Union. This practice sent a strong message that America stood with those who stand for basic human rights. In many cases it afforded these individuals protection from future harassment and even imprisonment.
Ambassador Shear said that he intended to honor this request. Following my conversation with him I received the enclosed letter from the department indicating that, “Ambassador Shear continues to engage with civil society advocates, promoters of rule-of-law, and democracy activists and will welcome them to the Embassy’s July 4th celebration.” I took Ambassador Shear at his word and in fact shared this correspondence with members of the Vietnamese Diaspora community in the U.S., several of whom were greatly encouraged by this development.
Late last week it was brought to my attention that many of the most prominent democracy and human rights activists in Vietnam were not invited to the event. These reports seemed starkly at odds with the assurances I had personally received from Ambassador Shear. I called him directly this morning to find out if the embassy had invited the dissidents as had been agreed upon. His response was appalling. He said that he had invited a few civil society activists but then said that he needed to maintain a “balance.”
I wonder how many prominent democracy and human rights activists flooded the 4th of July celebrations at our embassies in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, or China? And is Congressman Wolf upset with those as well?
Who would have thought that the 4th of July could be such a perilous event? And how many is “more” really, that seems like an important number.
I can understand Ambassador Shear’s point about “balance” but also appreciate the mission discretion over these invitees. Vietnam is run by a repressive, communist regime. The embassy has to deal with the government in place, not the government it wished were in place. That said, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the democracy or human right activists who shows up at this function could be put in peril just by the perception that they are working with the Americans. Does Congressman Wolf really want this kind of showy camera moment outreach during our national day or should we not prefer that the embassy have a more substantial engagement beyond the bright lights?
Just a side note here — the 2012 IG report tells us that the Government of Vietnam requires advance permission to conduct programs outside U.S. Government premises, controls the print and electronic media, and sometimes limits access to Internet sites. The US Embassy in Vietnam has been creative in using Vietnamese alumni of U.S. exchange programs as they are able to operate outside the restrictions placed on American speakers. These alumni can more easily engage with wider audiences as credible, informed communicators about their American experience, something the USG speakers are unable to do. That’s how restrictive is the operating environment. Heck, even acquiring land for a much-needed, new embassy compound there have stalled because the GOV is unwilling to grant a lease term that is acceptable to the State Department.
As to his gripe about the practice and custom during the Reagan Administration of sending a strong message that “America stood with those who stand for basic human rights,” it seems like the congressman has a rather selective memory. We may have been doing that in the Soviet Union, but didn’t we embraced an infamous human rights offender in Asia? While visiting Ferdinand Marcos, the Filipino dictator, didn’t Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, toasted Marcos’ “adherence to democratic principles?” How quickly we forget our best moments in diplomacy.
As to Congressman Wolf’s complaint about the handling of the case of Dr. Nguyen Quoc Quan, a Vietanmese-American democracy activist and U.S. citizen who is presently being held by the Vietnamese government — for an elected official it shows a limited understanding of what our embassy can and cannot do for Americans in jail.
Dual nationals owe allegiance to both the United States and the foreign country. They are required to obey the laws of both countries. Either country has the right to enforce its laws, particularly if the person later travels there. The United States may view Dr. Quan as a dual national U.S. citizen, not prohibited under our laws, but the country of Vietnam may make no distinction about his dual nationality.
Dr Quan was reportedly arrested in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam on a trip on November 17, 2007 for preparing pro-democracy flyers. According to his Wikipedia entry, he brought in a Vietnamese translation of the book From Dictatorship to Democracy about nonviolent resistance. He stood trial in Vietnam on May 13, 2008 on charges of “terrorism” (those commies are creative) and was sentenced to 6 months in prison. He was eventually released on May 17, 2008 and returned to his home in California.
And in April 2012, Dr. Quan was again arrested at the airport in Ho Chi Minh City. Government officials did not confirm his arrest until five days later. He is reportedly once more, detained on charges of terrorism and for planning to “instigate a demonstration” during the anniversary of the Fall of Saigon.
News report in April indicate that the U.S. consulate in Vietnam has confirmed his arrest but that no formal charges have been filed and he has not been granted a lawyer. Since his arrest, the US consulate was apparently able to visit him only once.
According to a 1994 agreement, U.S. citizens, even dual citizens, have the right to consular access if they were admitted into Vietnam as a U.S. citizen with their U.S. passport. If detained or arrested, travel.state.gov advised that “U.S. citizens should insist upon contact with the U.S. Embassy or the U.S. Consulate General.”
The problem is the Government of Vietnam is generally slow to notify the embassy about arrests or to grant access to U.S. citizen prisoners, and it requires diplomatic notes to schedule prison visits. It also does not permit visits without a Vietnamese official being present and insists that all verbal exchanges take place in Vietnamese.
Since the immediate release of Dr. Quan after each arrest is really what the congressman is looking for, nothing that the US mission in Vietnam do will ever be good enough. Perhaps it would be helpful if the State Department offers basic, no perks, no salary fellowship for our congressional representatives to work the visa line and the American Citizens Services units in the hell holes of the world. Surely that would be an instructive experience.