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Vietnam Committee on Human Rights & Rafto Foundation : Letter to U.S. President Barack Obama

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New York, Washington, London, Paris, Stockholm, Bergen, Prague,
12th November 2015

Dear President Obama,

We, the undersigned, academics, legislators, artists, religious leaders, members of international institutions and civil society organisations worldwide, believe in the power of dialogue and engagement, and we welcome the United States’ strengthened relationship with Vietnam. However, we are equally convinced that this relationship is only sustainable if it is founded on the mutual respect of democratic freedoms and internationally-recognised human rights.

You will soon make a landmark trip to Southeast Asia to attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit and the U.S.-ASEAN and East Asia Summits, where you will meet with Vietnamese leaders. This year is highly symbolic for your two nations, marking the 20 years of US-Vietnam diplomatic relations and the 40th Anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.

As you know, the very word Vietnam evokes a multitude of contrasting and conflicting images in people’s minds, and your visit will surely not escape this debate. For many, it is a historic step forward in strengthening economic and security ties, one that will help enhance the lives of millions of Vietnamese and advance peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

For others, human rights are the major concern. Whilst Vietnam has opened its economy, it remains a one-Party state in which freedom of expression, association and religion are curbed. Religious leaders, civil society activists and bloggers face daily harassments and intimidation simply for peacefully expressing their views, and have no legal framework to protect them.

We therefore call on you, Mr. President, to make a truly historic gesture on Vietnam. We urge you to press for the release of Vietnam’s most longstanding prisoner of conscience, the Buddhist monk and prominent dissident Thich Quang Do. This gesture would be deeply meaningful for the Vietnamese people, for Buddhism has a 2,000-year history in Vietnam, and has deeply influenced the nation’s culture and thinking. It would also give Vietnam the opportunity to demonstrate its willingness for progress, and reaffirm the United States’ determination to make human rights the cornerstone of this strengthened relationship.

Fifth Supreme Patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), a renowned spiritual leader, scholar, dissident and many-times Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Thich Quang Do, 87, has spent more than three decades in detention for his peaceful advocacy of religious freedom, democracy and human rights. For protesting the creation of a State-sponsored Buddhist Church, in 1982 he was sent into internal exile in northern Vietnam for ten years along with his mother, who died of cold and hunger in the harsh environment. In 1995, he was sentenced to five years in prison for organising a rescue mission for flood victims in the Mekong Delta, charged with “undermining national solidarity”. During his years in exile and prison, Thich Quang Do translated an 8,000-page “Great Dictionary of Buddhist Terms” into Vietnamese, a work of erudition that has won overwhelming acclaim.

Released in 1998 due to international pressure, notably thanks to an appeal by the then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Thich Quang Do was placed under house arrest at the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). “I went from a small prison into a larger prison”, he said. Since then, he has remained under house arrest without any formal indictment or charge. His communications are monitored and he is denied freedom of movement and citizenship rights. Thich Quang Do is a recipient of the prestigious Rafto Prize for human rights defenders, and, along with others in the country’s democracy movement, the World Movement for Democracy’s “Democracy Courage Tribute”.

From house arrest, Thich Quang Do continues to press Vietnam to respect all human rights for all. In August 2015, he told visiting US Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski that “human rights are the tools with which we can build a prosperous and caring society, based on mutual respect and the rule of law.” Thich Quang Do even evoked your possible visit to Vietnam, expressing hopes that the U.S. President would “win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people by speaking out for human rights.”

Mr. President,

In your memorable speech to the Australian Parliament in 2011 on the United States’ policy of “redressment to Asia” you said: “History is on the side of the free — free societies, free governments, free economies, free people. And the future belongs to those who stand firm for those ideals, in this region and around the world”.

Thich Quang Do has sacrificed his own safety and liberty to stand firm for these ideals. We earnestly urge you to stand by him now, and win back his freedom at last.



Vo Van Ai, President, Vietnam Committee on Human Rights, Quê Me
Gunnar Sørbø, Chairman, Rafto Foundation for Human Rights
Salil Shetty, General Secretary, Amnesty International
Jennifer Clement, President, PEN International
Karim Lahidji, President, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
Art Kaufman, Senior Director, World Movement for Democracy
Simon Panek, Managing Director, People in Need Foundation
Robert Hårdh, Executive Director, Civil Rights Defenders
Steven Hawkins, Executive Director, Amnesty International USA
John Edmundson, President, Agir Ensemble pour les Droits de l’Homme
Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, President, Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice


Jody Williams, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, USA
Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Rafto Prize Laureate, Iran
Mairead Maguire, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Ireland
Tawakkol Karman, Nobel Peace Laureate, Yemen
Kerry Kennedy, President, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, USA
Carl Gershman, President, National Endowment for Democracy, USA
Hon. Kim Campbell, Former Prime Minister of Canada, Chair of Steering Committee, World Movement for Democracy
Robert Hermann, Vice President for International Programs, Freedom House, USA
David J. Kramer, Senior Director for Human Rights & Democracy, McCain Institute for International Leadership, USA
James S. Denton, Publisher/Editor, World Affairs Journal, USA
Joshua Muravchik, Distinguished Fellow, World Affairs Institute, USA
Kevin Bales, PhD, Visiting Prof. of Human Rights, University of Chicago, USA
Knut Vollebaek, Former Foreign Minister of Norway
Emma Bonino, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Italy
Hon. David Kilgour, Former Canadian Minister of State for Asia-Pacific
Lord Avebury, House of Lords, Vice-Chair, All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Rights (UK)
Baroness Berridge, House of Lords, Chair, All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom or Belief (UK)
Lord Alton, House of Lords, Chair, All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea (UK)
Rebiya Kadeer, President, World Uyghur Congress, Rafto Prize Laureate, Tom Lantos Prize winner 2015
Fr. José Raúl Vera López, Bishop of Saltillo México, Rafto Prize Laureate 2010
Mons. Vaclav Maly, Catholic Bishop of Prague, President, the Justice and Peace Commission, Czech Bishops’ Conference
Peter Van Dalen, Member of the European Parliament, Co-Chair of EP Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief
Laura Agea, Member of the European Parliament, Italy
Ramon Tremosa I Balcells, Member of the European Parliament, Catalonia
Brando Benifei, Member of the European Parliament, Italy
Fabio Massimo Castaldo, Member of the European Parliament, Italy
Kostas Chrysogonos, Member of the European Parliament, Greece
Ignazio Corrao, Member of the European Parliament, Italy
Mark Demesmaeker, Member of the European Parliament, Belgium
Stefan Eck, Member of the European Parliament, Germany
Eleonora Evi, Member of the European Parliament, Italy
Ana Maria Gomes, Member of the European Parliament, Portugal
Tania Gonzáles Peñas, Member of the European Parliament, Spain
Nathalie Griesbeck, Member of the European Parliament, France
Jean Lambert, Member of the European Parliament, UK
Giulia Moi, Member of the European Parliament, Italy
Bronis Ropė, Member of the European Parliament, Lithuania
Jean-Luc Schaffhauser, Member of the European Parliament, France
Barbara Spinelli, Member of the European Parliament, Italy
Dario Tamburrano, Member of the European Parliament, Italy
Ivo Vajgl, Member of the European Parliament, Slovenia
Marco Valli, Member of the European Parliament, Italy
Julie Ward, Member of the European Parliament, United Kingdom
Jana Žitnanska, Member of the European Parliament, Slovakia
Noel Mamère, Member of the National Assembly, Mayor of Bègles, France
William Nygaard, President, Norwegian PEN
Bjorn Engesland, Secretary General Norwegian Helsinki Committee
Maria Dahle, Executive Director, Human Rights House Foundation, Norway
Gunvor Kronman, CEO Finland
Prof. Dr. Josef Haslinger, President, German PEN Center
Prof. Sascha Feuchert, Vice-President German PEN Center, Writers in Prison Committee
Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, Secretary General, CIVICUS
Mervyn Thomas, Chief Executive, Christian Solidarity Worldwide
Edwin A. Cranston, Professor of Japanese Literature, Harvard University
Zohra Yusuf, FIDH Vice President, & Chairperson, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan
Michael Y. M. Kau, Former Deputy Foreign Minister, Senior Fellow, Taiwan Foundation for Democracy
Fr. Ismael “Padre Melo” Moreno Coto, Rafto Prize Laureate 2015, Honduras
Mgr Bulambo Lembelembe Josué, Coordinator Peace and Reconciliation Programme, Church of Christ in DR Congo, Rafto Prize laureate 2008
Paul Divakar, Chairperson, Asia Dalit Rights Forum – Rafto Prize Laureate 2007
Maryam Al-Khawaja, Co-Director Gulf Center for Human Rights, Rafto Prize Laureate 2013
Nedal Al Salman, Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, Rafto Prize Laureate 2013
Dr. Peter Molnar, Poet, Senior Research Fellow, Central European University, Budapest, Rafto Prize Laureate 1989
Dr. Ian Hancock, Director of Romani Studies, University of Texas, Rafto Prize Laureate 1996
Dr. Frank Mugisha, Executive Director, Sexual Minorities Uganda, Rafto Prize Laureate, 2011 and Robert F. Kennedy Prize Laureate
Paulos Tesfagiorgis, Senior Advisor at International IDEA, Johannesburg, South Africa and Eritrea, Rafto Prize Laureate 2003
Malahat Nasibova, Director, Democracy and NGO’s Development Resource Center, Azerbaijan and Norway, Rafto Prize Laureate 2009
Nnimmo Bassey, Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation, Rafto Prize Laureate 2012
Dr. Pavel Chikov, Director, Agora, Kazan, Tartarstan, Russia, Rafto Prize Laureate 2014
Muireann O’Briain, Former Executive Director of ECPAT International, Rafto Prize laureate 1998
Prof. Kariane Westrheim, University of Bergen, Chair, EU Turkey Civic Commission
Marco Pannella, Former MEP, leader and founder of the Nonviolent Radical Party, Italy
Judge Essa Moosa, Judge, High Court of South Africa, International Peace and Reconciliation Initiative
Hannah Forster, African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies (The Gambia)
Poengky Indarty, Executive Director, Imparsial, Indonesia
Gustavo Amaya, President, Training Center and Promotion of Democracy, San Salvador
Vanida Thephsouhvanh, President, Lao Movement for Human Rights
Olivier Dupuis, Journalist, former Member of the European Parliament, Belgium
Alvin Jacobson, Amnesty International USA, Group 56 Case coordinator
Taeho Lee, Secretary General, People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, South Korea

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