Bush Pushes Vietnam Leader On Human Rights

President Bush meets with Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, June 22, 2007. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
As hundreds of protestors across the street called for the release of political prisoners in Vietnam, President Bush voiced similar concerns at the end of his Oval Office meeting with Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet.

"In order for relations to grow deeper, that it's important for our friends to have a strong commitment to human rights and freedom and democracy," he said.

The Vietnamese leader said he's willing to discuss those matters — but hopes they don't impair the larger overall relationship with the U.S., CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller reports.

Neither leader took questions during the appearance.

Triet is the first leader of his country to visit the White House since the end of the Vietnam War. But some fellow Vietnamese were not rolling out the welcome mat.

Hundreds were outside the White House carrying the flag of the old South Vietnam, as well as banners calling the Vietnamese president a criminal. CBS News correspondent Peter Maer says it was certainly one of the largest demonstrations against a visiting foreign leader in Washington in a long time.

"The young generation, they just want freedom, they just want freedom of speech, they just want freedom of expression," one woman told Maer.

"Minh Triet, go home! Minh Triet, go home!" others shouted.

Republican lawmakers have urged Mr. Bush to encourage President Triet to make stronger efforts to stop what they describe as widespread abuse of Vietnam's citizens.

"Societies are enriched when people are allowed to express themselves freely or worship freely," Mr. Bush said in the Oval Office after the meeting with Triet.

Mr. Bush said he told Triet, "We want to have good relations with Vietnam."

As dozens of protesters outside the White House waved flags, Triet said the two presidents had a "direct and open" conversation about human rights.

"Our approach is that we would increase our dialogue so that we will have a better understanding of each other," Triet said through an interpreter.

He said he is determined not to let differences on the issue damage overall relations.

Triet has attempted to keep the focus on vibrant trade ties between the United States and one of Asia's fastest-growing economies. The countries began a bilateral trade agreement in 2001; trade reached nearly $10 billion last year.

Triet is leading a delegation of more than 100 Vietnamese businessmen. He signed with the United States on Thursday a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement, which sometimes acts as a road map to eventual free trade negotiations.

But during an hour-long private meeting Thursday, senior U.S. lawmakers repeatedly took Triet to task for claims by rights groups that Vietnam has ramped up repression of political activists and religious leaders.

"Human rights was overwhelmingly the dominant issue," Republican Rep. Ed Royce said. "We've got to see a stop to this conduct if this relationship is going to improve."

When asked about Triet's response, Royce answered: "Evasion."

Vietnam tolerates no challenges to Communist one-party rule; it insists, however, that only lawbreakers are jailed. In recent months, Vietnam has arrested or sentenced at least eight pro-democracy activists, including a dissident Roman Catholic priest who was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Rep. Roy Blunt, the No. 2 House Republican, said Triet told lawmakers that Vietnam "had lots of human rights, but the dissidents were somehow endangering the security of the country. We pressed hard for more information about exactly what that means."

Triet, in a speech to business leaders before the congressional meeting, avoided any mention of human rights. He called for more U.S. business investment in his fast-growing country and said the government was working hard to smooth out difficulties that some U.S. companies have experienced.

"We will do our best to help you," Triet told the audience. "We are striving to create a friendly business environment."

Triet said talk of the war was outdated. "Vietnam is peace. Vietnam is friendship. Vietnam is developing dynamically and creatively," he said through an interpreter.

Sherman Katz, a senior associate in international trade at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Vietnam has "got to be aware that part of the price of doing business with the United States, if you expect the U.S. government to help you, is to clean up some of these" human rights problems.

In Los Angeles, Triet's next stop, hundreds of protesters, most of them Vietnamese émigrés critical of the communist leader and his government's human rights record, are expected to demonstrate.

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.