The Richmond Register

Local News

January 3, 2011

Model graduate to receive State Department human rights award

RICHMOND — Since he was posted as the political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam, in September 2007, Christian Marchant has advocated “tirelessly” and “persuasively” on behalf of political dissidents and for property rights and freedom of religion and against torture in the Communist country with which the United States fought a nearly decade-long war.

His work has not gone unnoticed by his superiors in Washington, and in late February, the 1992 graduate of Model Laboratory School will share the Human Rights and Democracy Award the State Department presents to an embassy officer.

The son of Dr. Marlow and Kristy Marchant once put his body between a protesting political dissident and the police he feared were about to beat or arrest her.

Even after security services ordered him not to, Marchant continued to visit Catholic priests and parishioners to see first hand the government's response to on-going land disputes in Hanoi.

He also attended the trial of eight parishioners who were tried and convicted for "disturbing the public order" for building a make-shift memorial on disputed property that was later demolished by the authorities.

Such actions are just part of his job, the modest foreign-service officer said in a telephone interview from his home in Hanoi, where he lives with his wife and three young children.

A State Department news release said Marchant is being “honored for outstanding work to deepen cooperation to prevent torture and address land rights issues, strengthen the bilateral Human Rights Dialogue, design an Internet Freedom road map and defend the rights of Vietnam’s dissidents in the midst of an extended crackdown on Freedom of Expression.”

Marchant “has been a persuasive advocate for Vietnam’s beleaguered dissident community, tirelessly serving as a conduit for imprisoned dissidents, their families and the outside world,” the citation states.

Asked if his award could be seen as an undiplomatic rebuke to his host country, Marchant said his work is part of the U.S. diplomatic corps’ “regular and long-running dialog with the Vietnamese government on human rights.”

That dialogue includes conversations with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has visited Vietnam twice in the past year, as well as embassy officials who may interact with the government on a daily basis, he said.

Clinton will present Marchant the award at a ceremony in Washington. His is one of three human rights awards the State Department makes annually.

One goes to a non-governmental agency (NGO), another to an ambassador and a third goes to an embassy officer. Marchant will share the officer’s award with Holly Lindquist Thomas of the U.S. embassy in Uzbekistan.

“We speak out regularly and very forcefully about issues on which we disagree” with host governments, Marchant said of his work in Vietnam, “but we also try to find areas on which we can agree and cooperate.”

The Catholic Church took root in Vietnam when it was a French colony. But, since the French left, what was then called Indochina, after their defeat in 1954, the church has had long-running disputes with the government that, despite some reforms, still holds the Marxist view that it owns all land.

The government will issue certificates of use, but not deeds, for land, Marchant said.

Not long after he arrived in the Vietnam, Marchant said there was a series of large-scale demonstrations against government seizure of property the church had claimed as its own for nearly a century.

Dialogue between the U.S. and Vietnam started in 1993, Marchant said, two years before the two former foes established diplomatic relations.

Nearly 55,000 Americans and perhaps more than one million Vietnamese died in the war the two nations fought for more than eight years.

The first discussions were about American service personnel still listed as prisoners of war or missing in action. The next conversations took up human rights in what Marchant said is still a “totalitarian” country.

Such blunt language is not outside the realm of diplomacy, he said.

Each year, the two nations conduct a formal human rights dialogue, Marchant said. The most recent took place Dec. 13. Part of his job is to work with his superiors in Washington to plan what issues should be raised in those dialogues.

“In the past, these dialogues weren't very productive,” Marchant said, “but we have tried to move them beyond merely criticisms of each other and towards finding concrete, specific areas where we can cooperate such as: implementing the Convention Against Torture, working on land rights disputes, working together on labor reform to make sure Vietnam's laws are in compliance with international standards.”

For their part, the Vietnamese have brought up U.S. treatment of terrorism suspects at the Guantanamo Bay prison, accusations of torture by American military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and incidents of police brutality in the United States.

“We are the first to admit we are not perfect,” Marchant said of his country, and pointing out to the Vietnamese that his government has sent to prison soldiers found guilty of torture at Abu Ghraib.

“The big difference between the two countries,” American diplomat points out, “is that if people in a position of authority in the United States abuse an individual, they go to jail,” he said.

In the past year, 25 Vietnamese citizens have been jailed for criticizing their government, Marchant said, and U.S. diplomats have made clear that such conduct is unacceptable if the two countries are to have improved relations.

Marchant said he meets with the families of imprisoned dissidents and lodges protests about the treatment of prisoners.

“Occasionally, we’re successful in getting people released,” he said.

During the secretary of state’s visits, she has told the Vietnamese the United States would like to take their bilateral relations, including trade, to a higher level. However, Vietnam’s human rights record is a “stumbling block” preventing that, Marchant said she told them.

Such exchanges have produced important advances, he said.

During Clinton’s visit in October, she witnessed the signing of an agreement with the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security to accept assistance from the United States to help it implement the torture ban.

The U.S. government also has offered to work with the Vietnamese in developing a comprehensive land-management system that would help address land-rights disputes.

Before he leaves Vietnam, Marchant said he hopes the two governments will finalize a memorandum of understanding on that issue.

Progress also has been made in the area of religious freedom – such as approving a H'mong edition of the Bible and registering increasing numbers of ethnic minority congregations in the Northwest Highlands.

His contribution to such achievements are among the reasons Marchant, a graduate of Brigham Young University, is receiving the Human Rights and Democracy Award.

Later this year, Marchant, who previously has served as a political officer in the Czech Republic, in China and other nations, will be posted to Washington, where he will supervise five people in the State Department’s office for Chinese and Mongolian affairs.

Bill Robinson can be reached at brobinson @richmondregister.com

or at 624-6622.

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