The talks come at a time when Vietnam shows no sign of easing up on its policy of locking up activists and bloggers.
The official human rights dialogue is the latest in a series of such annual meetings.
Presenter: Tom Fayle
Speaker: Elaine Pearson, Australian director at Human Rights Watch
PEARSON: Well, it's very hard to know whether releases happen as a result of a dialogue or whether the dialogue, I think the dialogue generally forms part of a sort of broader way of putting pressure on countries. I think one of the problems with these dialogues though is that they happen behind closed doors, there's very little information about what is actually discussed and there's no public representation about which specific cases of individuals are raised, so it's very difficult to know what improvements have been made from year-to-year. So one of the things that we're calling for is that there should be quite clear concrete and measurable improvements that Australia demands and that Australia is transparent about as a way of measuring the impact on Vietnam's human rights record.
FAYLE: You've talked about in the past about Vietnam needing to realise that it can't solve its significant social and political problems by locking people up. Well, that might be true, but to date, it's pretty much well kept a lid on the situation, hasn't it?
PEARSON: Well, I think it's kept a lid on the situation, but people keep protesting and people do keep standing up for their rights, which is why there is the revolving door of bloggers and activists who really are trying to sort of make their voices heard. They're not happy about things and so I think Vietnam really needs to realise that this isn't an effective way of dealing with the problem and that it's really only going to have a sort of limited impact in terms of silencing certain people, but other people certainly are going to continue to demand their rights.
FAYLE: You've also mentioned the issue of forced labour in drug detention centres. What do we know about the conditions in these camps?
PEARSON: Well, conditions are very bad in these detention centres, we know that tens-of-thousands of people are held there, there's no due process, so they don't come before a court, they're often forced to work, to produce various products. In our research we have sort of traced the supply chains and found that some of those products have made their way actually to Australia, for instance, some of the cashews, that have been shelled in those centres. So this is basically drug therapy that through very sort of harsh treatment, forcing people to work, it's meant to be teaching them a lesson, but we really think that there should be much better ways of sort of voluntary accessible drug treatment that don't require locking people up and forcing them to work.
FAYLE: So in a nut shell, what message should Australia be taking into these talks?
PEARSON: I think Australia needs to make it clear that if Vietnam wants to be considered a serious international partner of Australia, then it really needs to get serious about meeting its international obligations. And so, there are very tangible things that Vietnam could do, one of those things is releasing the 150 to 200 political prisoners who are currently detained in prisons and as a matter of priority, probably also focusing on those who have acute medical needs.
Just this year, a couple of political prisoners unfortunately died very soon after their release and they had illnesses that could have been quite easily treated. So I think this is really about setting quite concrete benchmarks for improvements that Vietnam could make and really looking at ending these restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly and association.
FAYLE: Now, this is supposed to be a dialogue, of course. What do you think the Vietnamese will be saying to Australia about its human rights record?
PEARSON: Well, it's interesting. I mean there was a dialogue between Australia and China earlier this year and China wasn't shy at all about raising concerns about Australia's record on asylum seekers and treatment of refugees. So I assume that Vietnam may also raise I think some of those concerns, which are coming increasingly to international attention, perhaps they may also raise concerns about treatment of Indigenous populations also in Australia.
FAYLE: And finally, the dialogue with Australia is taking place at the same time as a visit to Vietnam by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom. Now, we don't know what his conclusions will be yet. But does the fact that the visit is taking place at all signify a greater openness on the part of Vietnam, a greater willingness to engage?
PEARSON: Well, I think there has been more pressure on Vietnam from the international community, which is probably why they feel like they need to allow this rapporteur to enter, and part of that has been coming, particularly from the United States, because they willing, they're wanting to sign this free trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But I think as far as religious repression is concerned, actually we've seen a lot of back sliding in this area since last year, when the Prime Minister of Vietnam actually brought in a new decree, which really extended control of a lot of religious groups. So I think there's certainly a lot of issues for the Special Rapporteur to be looking at while they are in Vietnam.