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New TPP Hurdle: Vietnam’s Human Rights Record

Vietnam has consistently been a magnet for controversy during the now stalled Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, largely over the complex contours of “rules of origin” for fibers. However, it now has taken center stage for its questionable human rights record, another potential hurdle to be cleared for the TPP to reach a final settlement.

A letter signed by forty-seven members of the U.S. House of Representatives expressed misgivings about Vietnam’s lack of respect for human rights, citing its alarming arrests of journalists, bloggers and activists critical of the government. While many U.S. officials have publicly praised Vietnam for making great strides in this area, a State Department report issued last year catalogued a litany of its recent abuses including the severe circumscription of civil liberties, the denial of basic political rights, the limitation of religious freedom and rampant governmental corruption.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently visited Vietnam and praised its progress regarding human rights. He said, “Vietnam has proven that greater openness is a great catalyst for a stronger and more prosperous society and today Vietnam has a historic opportunity to prove that even further.” Kerry continued, lavishly heaping praise upon the government’s ostensible reform. “A commitment to an open Internet, to a more open society, to the rights of people to be able to exchange their ideas, to a high-quality education, to a business environment that supports innovative companies and to the protection of individual people’s human rights and their ability to be able to join together and express their views,” he declared.

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Kerry also announced a new USAID-backed program that shuttles $4.2 million to Vietnam, a gesture meant to help expedite the conclusion of TPP talks. He said, “This is just one more way that the United States wants to support Vietnam as it grows its own role in the global economy.”

From the beginning, Vietnam has been a central seat of controversy for nations embroiled in TPP negotiations, especially regarding the “yarn forward rule of origin.” The U.S. proposed rule stipulates that any garment must be made of either fabric or yarn supplied by the U.S. or any signatory TPP nations to be eligible for duty-free benefits when shipped back to the U.S. For obvious reasons, many importers have strenuously objected to the rule. Conversely, many American textile producers declaim that it is absolutely necessary for them to remain competitive in the future.

The textile and garment industries are central to Vietnam’s economy. Last year, its more than 4,000 companies earned in excess of $20 billion, accounting for about 15 percent of its GDP.