The State Department has just added Vietnam to the list of serious violators of religious freedom, but the administration is advancing a new partnership with the Communist nation, facilitating U.S. subsidies to its government. Many other top violators of religious freedom also benefit from U.S. taxpayers, particularly through Export-Import Bank financing.
On September 15, the State Department issued its annual International Religious Freedom Report, in accordance with the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. This year, the State Department added Vietnam, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia to the list of nations that seriously violate religious liberty. Already counted as “Countries of Particular Concern” were Burma, China, Iran, North Korea and Sudan.
While the 1998 law requires an administration to impose sanctions on these nations within 180 days, the Bush Administration over the past year has moved in the opposite direction, at in least the case of Vietnam, increasing that nation’s access to Export-Import Bank subsidies underwritten by American taxpayers.
The Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im) is a federal agency that loans money to foreign governments and companies or underwrites such loans so that those buyers can purchase American goods.
This past winter, Ex-Im Chairman Philip Merrill traveled to Hanoi “to promote trade ties between the two nations” according to an Ex-Im press release. In the release, Merrill was quoted as saying, “Exports mean more business for companies and better lives for people on both sides of any transaction.”
For example, state-run Vietnam Airlines purchased four Boeing 777 jets with a loan from the Communist government’s Ministry of Finance. The Export-Import Bank has guaranteed that loan for $210,355,298.
This means that if one part of the Vietnamese government (the airline) could not pay back a loan to another part of the Vietnamese government (the Finance Ministry), the U.S. taxpayers would pick up the tab.
Meanwhile, other parts of the U.S. government have denied meetings with Vietnamese officials and said the religious freedom violations will slow complete normalization of trade.
The Department of State’s report says that the government there allows religious freedom only to certain sects that are recognized by the state, and cites reports many Protestant churches have been shut down and individuals have been pressured to recant.
The report says, “According to credible reports, the police arbitrarily detained and sometimes beat religious believers, particularly in the mountainous ethnic minority areas. During the period covered by this report, one Protestant leader in the Northwest Highlands reportedly was beaten to death for refusing to recant his faith.”
The United Nations reports that Vietnam uses government funds to pay for abortions.
In another new “Country of Particular Concern,” Saudi Arabia, U.S. taxpayer exposure through Ex-Im financing is nearly $1.9 billion, according to Ex-Im’s 2003 annual report.
China has also benefited from Ex-Im finance, though to a lesser degree than in recent years. In 2003, Ex-Im underwrote a $200-million loan to a joint venture between Dutch-owned Shell and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) so that they could buy equipment from Bechtel, a major U.S. company.
The 1998 law requires the State Department to recommend sanctions against the serious violators. The list of possible sanctions includes “reduction of certain assistance funds, termination of certain assistance funds, imposition of targeted trade sanctions, imposition of broad trade sanctions, and withdrawal of the chief of mission.”
The law, however, allows the State Department to recommend any sanction it finds fitting, and the White House has full discretion as to whether or not to implement the sanctions wholly or in part.
China has been a “Country of Particular Concern” since 1999, but the U.S. government has taken no punitive actions based upon this designation. This year’s report on China says: “U.S. officials protested vigorously whenever there were credible reports of religious harassment or discrimination in violation of international laws and standards??¢â???¬ ¦. In December 2003, President Bush met with Premier Wen Jiabao in Washington and called for greater religious tolerance.”
State Department officials said it was far too early to say what actions will be recommended regarding any of the “Countries of Particular Concern.”
Export-Import Bank spokesman Andrew Yarrow said, “It’s not a strict part of our mandate to follow particular human rights guidelines,” adding that they “take guidance from the State Department.”