The University of Iowa

Professor advising legal, judicial reforms in Vietnam

March 21st, 2011

The following was featured in fyi, the UI faculty and staff newsletter. Sidel is also an International Studies faculty member.

Law professor Mark Sidel is working closely with the United Nations Development Programme in Vietnam to develop legal and judicial reforms in a country where he’s no stranger.

Sidel has visited the country regularly since 1991, when he developed and managed the Ford Foundation’s programs in Vietnam (a job that for a time required airplane commutes from Bangkok to Hanoi that occasionally resulted in Thai pilots missing the runways and needing to pull up right before landing). In that position, he was one of the few Americans to work in Vietnam after diplomatic relations were cut following the Communist takeover of the country in 1975, and would not be re-established until 1995.

Sidel has taught Vietnamese law at Harvard, the University of London, and University of Melbourne, Australia, and has participated in numerous international conferences about law in Vietnam. His understanding of Vietnamese law, culture, and government led to his work as a litigation advisor for the Department of Justice in its 2004 conviction of a factory owner in American Samoa. The owner was convicted of human trafficking offenses for abusing laborers he imported from Vietnam and China, the largest human trafficking case prosecuted in the United States since the Civil War.

Sidel also has published numerous articles and books about Vietnam, including Law and Society in Vietnam, published by Cambridge University Press, and Old Hanoi, published by Oxford, a book that outlines the social, architectural, and cultural history of Vietnam’s capital.

Sidel is serving this year as international legal advisor to United Nations Development Programme Legal and Judicial Reform Project, which is based in Hanoi. He works with Vietnamese agencies, including the Ministry of Justice, with the U.N., and with outside specialists on various aspects of the project’s mission. The aim is to, among other things, strengthen capacity within the legal system, reform the judicial system to make it more independent from the Communist Party and government, and increase access to the judicial system for Vietnam’s citizens.

fyi: Americans still have mixed feelings about Vietnam due to the war. Have you encountered any hostility there?

Sidel: None at all. In fact, the Vietnamese have always been extremely friendly to me, including my Foreign Ministry and Party hosts in the 1990s. They are better about getting over the hard feelings generated by the war than we are. They mourn their dead as we do, but that generally doesn’t translate into animosity against Americans. Usually the war only comes up in conversations with Vietnamese if Americans bring it up.

Keep in mind that the Vietnamese have been fighting wars for centuries—against the Chinese, the Japanese, and the French, among others. For the Vietnamese, what we call the Vietnam War was one in a long series of wars. One of my most gratifying moments in Vietnam was sitting with Vietnam’s longtime senior diplomatic negotiator with the United States in Hanoi in August 1995 as Warren Christopher, our then-Secretary of State, opened the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi after years of war and hostility. That was a great moment for all of us, in both countries, who had been involved in the rebuilding of U.S.-Vietnam relations.

fyi: How has Vietnam changed in the 20 years you’ve been going there?

Sidel: For many Vietnamese, it’s a considerably more prosperous and happier place than when I first visited. The Vietnamese had been fighting wars for so long that many really appreciate the last two decades of peace and prosperity. They’ve made a number of economic reforms and it’s intriguing to watch its transition from a hard-line socialist state to a freer, more open society.

The leadership has also opened up the economy and adopted some economic reforms similar to what China did in the 1980s, so it’s seeing something of an economic boom. This doesn’t mean everything there is going well. It’s still a one-party Communist state that has a poor record with human rights, political prisoners, and political dissidents—including lawyers who are dissidents—and its government and legal system continue to be marked by corruption.

fyi: Part of your advising with the U.N. is to help consider ways to clean up the corruption in the legal system.

Sidel: That’s right. The Vietnamese leadership understands the need for legal reform if it hopes to continue to receive the kind of international investment that’s fueled its economic growth, and in order to build a fairer society in Vietnam. Investors are reluctant to put money in a country where their investment may not receive equal legal protection, and they know that.

As part of its development, Vietnam has put in place a number of legal reforms in the last two decades. The reforms have helped to strengthen respect for the rule of law, and the government has spent more resources on its legal and judicial systems. But the legal system and judiciary still face an array of challenges, mostly relating to poorly trained and poorly paid personnel, a weak legal education system, and corruption.

fyi: How has the ruling Communist Party adapted to these changes?

Sidel: The Party has both encouraged reforms but also continues to be involved in legal decisions and, in some situations, tells judges how to decide cases. On many ordinary cases, judges have relative autonomy to make decisions as they see fit. However, on major cases—corruption, human rights, or land disputes, for instance—political authorities are used to having their way. The Party continuing to tell the judiciary how to decide such cases is a real problem for the development of a rule of law, of course, and hampers continuing economic and political development.

The political leadership is working closely with U.N. and other donors’ efforts to strengthen legal and judicial reform, but they do want reforms that will not threaten the country’s one-party rule. While they’re seeking to strengthen the quality of the legal system, there is still a debate about how autonomous they want it to become.

fyi: What are some of the things you’re most gratified by in your recent work in Vietnam?

Sidel: In the past couple of years, I’ve worked on U.N. efforts to develop Vietnam’s first legal clinics, where law students can become involved in actual cases and learn legal skills through practice. That’s a real breakthrough for the Vietnamese legal system and for legal education in Vietnam. And I’m helping the U.N. now structure a program of assistance to legal education more generally that will, hopefully, help train a new generation of law teachers and develop a curriculum that reflects current Vietnamese reality and the need for public interest lawyers. Those are a couple of areas of some real progress in recent years.