Vietnam Human Rights Day Dinner
Speech delivered by CHR Chair Torsten Wiesel
May 9, 2003
Thank you Dr. Nguyen for your kind introduction and for inviting to this dinner not only me and the staff of our Committee on Human Rights, but also distinguished members of the National Academy of Sciences, Nobel Laureate Jerome Karle and his wife, Isabella Karle. Both are outstanding structural biologists.
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, contained in this little blue book, has been subscribed to by all member countries of the United Nations. The atrocities committed during World War II, especially the Holocaust, prompted the creation of this declaration.
However, today, more than 50 years later, this declaration is celebrated but it is, also, widely violated by many member countries of the U.N., including Vietnam.
As human rights advocates, this declaration, with its various articles and covenants, is "our bible." In the case of Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, it is the exercise of his rights as described under Article 19 that has landed him in prison three times now. It says:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
This morning I talked about Dr. Nguyen Dan Que's history. I compared him and his stature to Andrei Sakharov, the famous Russian physicist and dissident.
Tonight I would like to talk about Dr. Que's views and political philosophy so as to give more substance to my analogy and to reflect his true spirit.
In reading the articles that he has written I have been struck by his clarity of mind and realism and lack of bias and rancor. He is, without question, a man of principle and courage.
After struggling against government policies for over 30 years--and having spent more than 18 of those years in prison because of his views--one cannot help but wonder how many of us here tonight would have been able to retain his optimism and balance?
In reading Dr. Que's most recent statement on the importance of freedom of information, I have the sense that he would want us to focus not just on today's theme of human rights but also on improving the daily lives of people in Vietnam, who are suffering both economic and political repression.
Dr. Que has welcomed, in his writing, the resumption of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the United States and endorsed engagement in bilateral trade because, in his view, it would have an inevitable liberalizing effect on the country's social and political order.
In his March 13 communiqué about the Bilateral Trade Agreement, (that took effect on December 10, 2001) in a statement that undoubtedly led to his third arrest on March 17 of this year--he said:
The BTA has opened up opportunities for the Vietnamese people to engage in free market, thereby liberating them from the regime's economic oppression through the system of state-owned enterprises.
Clearly, Dr. Que is a person who believes that economic and cultural development in Vietnam (including freedom of speech, information, and human rights) is inevitable. It is just a question of time.
An article that Dr. Que wrote during the Clinton administration for the Asian Wall Street Journal, reflected this faith in the Vietnamese people:
We have incredible natural resources, he said. We are a resilient, resourceful people, which Americans have learned twice; first as competitors on the field of battle; second watching the Vietnamese boat people transform themselves from pitiful refuges into prosperous citizens in their adopted land.
Thirty years ago Dr. Que worked with the poor, urging better health care and access to vital medicines made available only to government officials and wealthy individuals. His criticism of these government practices within the health care system landed him in jail for 10 years.
It appears that during those ten years, mostly in solitary confinement, Dr. Que's initial human rights concerns about health care access by the poor evolved, in a second stage of thinking, into a realistic assessment of what steps need to be taken to achieve a more pluralistic society and economic self-reliance in Vietnam.
His manifesto, made public in 1990, advocated empowering the people economically and culturally, and enabling the productive citizens to be in charge of the economy, rather than the government or capitalists.
This year, in his March 13 statement on the BTA, in perhaps a third stage of thinking, he predicted that from economic liberalization, the people will stand up to demand democracy and freedom!
Dr. Que has always insisted that such demands be nonviolent. In a 1999 interview, while he stressed the need for change to a global economy in Vietnam, he emphasized that he does not support violence. "After all the wars we don't want to spill one drop of blood," he said. He pointed out that political influence is changing from military to economic and has repeatedly stressed the importance of reuniting the Vietnamese population in the country and abroad.
He has urged that all Vietnamese forget old divisions based on Nationalism and Communism--that the former enemies of Hanoi and Washington unite in a broader vision that will liberate their country from both economic and political oppression and lead, inevitably, to democracy and freedom.
All of us, irrespective of our professions, can, in our personal capacities, help Dr. Que and other prisoners of conscience in Vietnam to realize this broader vision toward democracy and freedom.
To truly reflect Dr. Que's personality, we must also consider his personal courage and determination to express and bring to fruition his vision, against overwhelming odds.
Dr. Que spent four months chained to a prison floor in a failed effort by the Vietnamese government to convince him to leave the country. His family has urged him to think of his health and those here who care so much about him.
Dr. Que has been offered many opportunities to leave Vietnam and begin a new life here in the United States. But he has steadfastly refused to abandon his vision of a free and democratic country and his efforts to help achieve it. Rather than being here with us tonight at this impressive event as a celebrated and honored guest, he is lying in a prison with no means of communicating with the outside world.
We must, of course, work to help him regain his freedom but, more importantly, we must work to make his vision a reality. His courage should be supported, his suffering should not be in vain, and his vision should be carried forward by all who care, as he does, about the future of Vietnam.
Finally, I would like to tell you that, if permission can be obtained from the Vietnamese government and financial support can be found, the Committee on Human Rights, that I chair, will consider undertaking a mission to Vietnam to visit Dr. Que and other prisoners of conscience and to meet with government officials there. I will be happy to lead that mission.