Rights group accuses Vietnam of misleading US on human trafficking


  • World
  • Thursday, 20 Jun 2024

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Vietnam instructed its officials to withhold information from Washington to paint the country's efforts to tackle human trafficking in a better light, a campaign group said on Thursday, as Vietnam seeks an upgrade in a key U.S. report.

Rights group Project88 based its accusation on official Vietnamese documents it said it had obtained. Reuters reviewed translations of the documents provided by the group but was unable to independently confirm their authenticity.

Project88, which focuses on human rights in Vietnam, accused the Southeast Asian country of giving misleading information and attempting to cover up trafficking cases involving officials when communicating with U.S. officials over the State Department's Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report.

Vietnam's foreign ministry and embassy in Washington did not respond to Reuters' emails seeking comment on the claims. The government has in the past said it takes human trafficking seriously and punishes traffickers.

The annual TIP report is the U.S. government's key mechanism for holding countries around the world accountable for failures to prevent trafficking, forced labor and other exploitation, and details areas where each country needs to take actions.

Failures to act on issues raised in the report can lead to sanctions like being cut off from U.S. assistance.

The State Department placed Vietnam in its bottom tier on the 2022 edition of the report, but upgraded it last year, crediting the government with initiating more trafficking investigations and prosecutions, cooperating with international law enforcement, and implementing protections for overseas workers.

Vietnam remains on a "watch list" for countries that must show improvement on specific U.S. recommendations to avoid falling back to the bottom tier.

In response to last year's TIP report, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Pham Thu Hang said Vietnam had implemented a five-year human trafficking prevention and control program that began in 2021, improved statistics and stepped up investigations, according to comments cited by Nhan Dan, the official newspaper of the country's Communist Party.

U.S. officials preparing this year's edition of the TIP report, which is expected to be published this month, must decide whether Vietnam is continuing to make significant efforts to comply with the report's standards.

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.

'AVOID COMPLICATIONS'

In April, Project88 co-director Ben Swanton wrote to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and said that Vietnam had "politicized and undermined" the TIP reporting process.

Vietnamese internal documents "suggest that Vietnam is covering up the involvement of government officials in human trafficking and deliberately misleading the State Department about its efforts to address the problem," Swanton wrote.

The group published a report on the findings on Thursday, calling for Washington to act in its upcoming TIP report.

U.S.-Vietnamese ties have grown steadily since the two countries normalized relations in 1995, two decades after the end of the Vietnam War.

President Joe Biden last year visited Vietnam to sign a formal upgrade in ties and the Commerce Department is currently considering whether to recognize Communist Vietnam as a market economy to further improve economic ties.

Project88 said it had obtained an internal Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security note - written in February - that sets out recommendations for officials crafting the Southeast Asian country's response to U.S. questions for the TIP report.

According to the note - signed by Major General Dang Hong Duc and translated by Project88 - Vietnam should "persist with the concept of 'both cooperate and fight'... (and) prevent the US from taking advantage and using the problem as a political tool to shape the country’s legal system, while intervening in our internal affairs."

The note said that a review had found Vietnam's responses to U.S. questions on trafficking were "too detailed and specific" and proposed new answers.

One answer relates to a case involving a Vietnamese migrant worker who was trafficked to Saudi Arabia as a minor, with the involvement of Vietnamese officials, and later died after her employer abused her. The case was referenced by the State Department when it downgraded Vietnam in its 2022 TIP report.

"Please consider not updating any more information about how this case was handled to avoid complications," the note said.

It also called for Vietnam to "conduct propaganda" by promoting efforts it has taken on human trafficking to the international community and notes the "positive trajectory" of U.S.-Vietnam ties.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis; additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; editing by Michelle Nichols and Deepa Babington)

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