Vietnam, U.S. Resume Human Rights Talks

Hanio, Vietnam - Vietnam and the United States have resumed their human rights dialogue after a three-year suspension, renewing links with "productive" talks, a senior U.S. official said Monday.

Barry Lowenkron, Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, said meetings with senior Vietnamese officials focused on areas of cooperation and concern — "These were not discussions of throwing accusations at each other."

"There has been an improvement in the religious freedom area. There's a greater willingness on the part of the Vietnam government to sit down in a constructive fashion with us and address a whole range of human rights concerns," Lowenkron said.

He said he praised the January release of elderly democracy activist Nguyen Khac Toan but also presented Vietnamese officials with a list of "prisoners of concern" being held in Vietnam. U.S. officials also raised the issue of Internet freedom since Vietnam has jailed a number of "cyber-dissidents" in recent years.

U.S. officials are particularly keen on achieving some breakthroughs before the arrival of

President George W. Bush to Hanoi in November for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

Talks were suspended in 2002 after a series of major human rights violations by Vietnam, including a brutal clampdown on ethnic minority Christians in the Central Highlands after mass demonstrations over land rights and religion.

Vietnam was placed on the U.S. list of 'countries of particular concern' in 2004 — a designation for the worst violators of religious and human rights that carried the possibility of economic sanctions. It has remained there for a second year in a row.

Though Hanoi has repeatedly denied that it violates human rights, the government has taken steps aimed at reversing its negative image, including releasing dissidents and relaxing restrictions on public worship.

In addition to Toan, Vietnam has released two other high-profile dissidents — Father Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly and Dr. Nguyen Dan Que.

Previously banned Protestant house churches have also been allowed to operate in the Central Highlands, as long as they severed ties with an exile group that Hanoi links to a separatist movement. As part of a broader liberalization plan, the Vietnamese government has begun to register and permit the reopening of previously closed churches.