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Monday, 10 April 2000
Page: 15575

Dr SOUTHCOTT (3:56 PM) —I would like to speak on this motion moved by the member for Maribyrnong. I feel the member for Maribyrnong neglected to mention the significant progress that has been made in this area since 1995, both by the previous government and by the current government. In fact, the report of the Human Rights Sub-Committee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade on Australia's regional dialogue on human rights actually said that Vietnam should be singled out, but that it should be singled out as a model for a constructive human rights dialogue which we would establish with that country.

Clearly there are significant human rights concerns in Vietnam, but since 1995 Australia and Vietnam have developed a dialogue on human rights with new areas of cooperation such as training and institution building. The Minister for Foreign Affairs has raised individual cases with the Vietnamese foreign minister. The Australian Embassy in Vietnam makes representations about individual cases; the most recent representation in Hanoi on 15 March 2000. AusAID has funded a course on human rights and international law for high-level government officials. There is also a human rights fund, funded by AusAID and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which provides a library of human rights resources for the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Our dialogue on human rights is enhanced by our aid program to Vietnam. Vietnam is the third largest recipient of Australian aid, and we are the second largest bilateral donor after Japan.

In its June 1998 report on Australia's regional dialogue on human rights, the Human Rights Sub-Committee welcomed the joint initiatives in Vietnam and recommended that they be used as a model for other countries in the region. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade web site recognises there have been improvements in the human rights situation in Vietnam. The ending of isolation and the integration of Vietnam into the wider community have contributed to this improvement. In 1998, 8,000 prisoners, including the Venerable Thich Quang Do, Doan Viet Hoat and Nguyen Dan Que, were released. In 1999, 6,000 prisoners had their sentences reduced, and 1,700 prisoners were released. However, there were no political or religious dissidents released.

A grand amnesty has been foreshadowed for April and September 2000. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Australian government, is encouraging the inclusion of political and religious dissidents in this amnesty. The number of political and religious prisoners in Vietnam is estimated at 30 to 150. It is true to say, as the previous member did, that the press remains restricted. It is true to say that a number of Internet sites have been blocked, but there are also a lot of opportunities through the Internet. Urban Vietnamese are becoming increasingly IT literate, and dissident views can be now expressed through the Internet. There are still limits to religious activities. There is some dissent allowed within the Communist Party, but it is only limited dissent.

Australia's approach is a practical one. It is the same one that was adopted by the Labor Party when they were in government, and it is working. As I said before, the Minister for Foreign Affairs has raised human rights concerns with his counterpart, including individual cases. The Prime Minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs have both raised human rights issues with the Vietnamese Prime Minister, Phan Van Khai, during his visit to Australia in April of last year. Also, since 1997 AusAID has sponsored a human rights course in Hanoi with the Ho Chi Minh Academy and a study tour to Australia with visits to human rights institutions. Next is planned a study tour by Ho Chi Minh Academy officials to see the operation of human rights institutions in the Asia-Pacific region, translating human rights text and practical training in research and training of human rights.

There have been improvements—for example, 13 out of the 17 people whom the government made representations about were released from detention in the 1998 amnesty. What I would say to the sponsor of this motion is that if he does have individual cases that he feels should be raised then he should raise them with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and ask the Australian Embassy to make representations on their behalf. In summary, the human rights situation in Vietnam is of concern. The approach that Australia has taken is in no way to apologise for the situation but to say we are making practical improvements. It is wrong to say that there has not been improvements; there clearly have been.