U.S. lawmakers back eased Vietnam embargo, have rights concerns

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang after an arrival ceremony at the presidential palace in Hanoi, Vietnam May 23, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senior U.S. lawmakers said on Monday they supported President Barack Obama’s lifting of the embargo on sales of lethal arms to Vietnam, but promised to examine closely any transactions to ensure they comply with U.S. interests, including human rights.

“Congress will work with the administration to ensure today’s more expansive shift in policy aligns with U.S. interests, including the desire for progress on human rights,” the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Republican Bob Corker, said in a statement.

The United States announced an end to the arms embargo on Vietnam on Monday, drawing a line under the two countries’ old enmity. The move came during Obama’s first visit to Hanoi.

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the subcommittee that oversees the State Department budget, said lifting the ban sends a message to China, at a time when Beijing has claimed sovereignty over 80 percent of the South China Sea.

“But it should not open the floodgates for sales of lethal equipment. Those decisions will be made on a case by case basis,” Leahy said in a statement.

He said decisions on approving arms sales should reflect an assessment of relevant factors, including progress by Vietnam’s government in protecting freedom of expression and other human rights.

Leahy is the author of the Leahy Law, which bars the U.S. State and Defense Departments from providing military aid and equipment for foreign military or police if they have committed gross violations of human rights.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle Editing by W Simon and Alistair Bell