A visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Vietnam on July 10 has drawn a stark contrast to the way that Australia handles human rights concerns about the south-east Asian nation.

It was Clinton’s third visit to Vietnam in two years and each time she’s publicly raised human rights and internet freedom issues. This time she told a press conference that Vietnam should do more to support human rights, while voicing concerns at the ongoing jailing and sentencing of bloggers and other government critics.

“There are some who argue that developing economies need to put economic growth first and worry about political reform and democracy later. But that is a short-sighted bargain,” Clinton said. “Political reform and economic growth are linked.”

The US, which normalised relations with Vietnam in 1995 and lifted a trade embargo in 2001, has long said publicly that despite the two nations’ growing ties, ongoing improvements will be subject to an improvement in human rights issues and greater internet freedom.

This is in contrast to Australia. We’ve been conducting human rights dialogues with Vietnam for 10 years, but always behind closed doors. When dissidents are arrested we do not issue statements or call  publicly for their release. And not everyone is happy about that.

It’s a live issue. New York-based Human Rights Watch says in a statement on its website that: “Vietnam’s human rights record remains weak in many areas … the criminal justice system lacks independence and operates under the direction of the government and party”.

Last month Australia’s Parliament passed a motion to improve the human rights dialogue with Vietnam. The motion was pushed by Queensland Senators Mark Furner and Ron Boswell, from Labor and the Nationals respectively. A petition of 55,000 signatures collected over two months was presented to Parliament. Raising awareness domestically of our human rights work with Vietnam was one of the recommendations — but it seems we won’t be doing that in Hanoi, at least not publicly.

Instead, Australia has run seminars involving AusAID and Vietnamese government bodies such as the Ministry of Justice and the Vietnam Women’s Union. We’ve sponsored a human rights course at the Ho Chi Minh Political Academy, and assisted with the revision of laws protecting human rights.

Critics of the Vietnamese government are sometimes arrested and charged under section 88 of the criminal code, which prohibits propaganda against the state. Reporters Without Borders classifies Vietnam as an “enemy of the internet” for its blocking of seditious websites and its on-again off-again block of Facebook. A new draft decree on internet usage, which would require bloggers to give their real names and host sites to delete offending content or hand over user details, has been soundly criticised by rights groups.

Carlyle Thayer, a member of the Australian Defence Force Academy and a Vietnam expert, told Crikey: “My assessment is that unless Australian citizens are directly involved, Australia plays a very low-key role. Australia is probably more effective behind the scenes as in the past it has secured the release of Vietnamese-Australians who have run foul of the authorities.”

Australia did quietly secure the release of an Australian citizen in 2010. During Hanoi’s overblown 10 day millennial celebrations, Hong Vo, from Melbourne, held a small protest in the centre of town one weekend, unfurling a few banners and handing out the odd leaflet. She was later arrested at Tan Son Nhat airport in Ho Chi Minh City and detained for 10 days. Vo is a member of Viet Tan, an overseas Vietnamese pro-democracy organisation the government still classifies as a terrorist group.

Phong Nguyen, a Sydney-based spokesman for Viet Tan, says Australia’s softly-softly approach certainly differs from the US; Nguyen says Australia’s approach has restricted debate. And the group wants more action from politicians.

“We are one of the biggest communities in Australia, so MPs do need to work closely with us,” Nguyen said.