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Ambassador hails Vietnam progress

Ambassador de Cerjat (left) and General Giap, one of the heroes of Vietnam's independence struggle (B. de Cerjat)

In 1971 Switzerland was one of the first western countries to establish diplomatic relations with Vietnam, which at that time was at war with the United States.

The Swiss ambassador to Vietnam, Bénédict de Cerjat, told swissinfo about how the country with one of the fastest growing economies in Asia has changed over the past 35 years.

De Cerjat was speaking ahead of the official anniversary on Wednesday.

Vietnam became a unified and one-party Communist country in 1978 after the armed forces of the Communist North seized power in the South.

Over three decades the Communists had fought for Vietnam's independence against the French colonial power and then the US-backed South Vietnam.

swissinfo: While recognising North Vietnam, which was fighting to unify the country, Switzerland kept up diplomatic relations with the South. What was the historical context of this period?

Bénédict de Cerjat: In the 1950s and 60s Switzerland found itself in the difficult position of wanting to maintain a balanced position between several belligerents, including Vietnam, Korea and Germany.

At the beginning of the 1970s the Swiss decided to look ahead and determine diplomatic relations with North Vietnam, which seemed to be moving towards reunifying the country under the influence of the Communist party.

We were among the first western countries, along with Sweden, Britain and France, to take this step.

swissinfo: Many official documents speak of privileged diplomatic relations between the two countries. What does this mean?

B.d.C.: At the beginning, our relations were almost exclusively focused on humanitarian aspects. In the early 1990s Switzerland initiated a development cooperation programme to accompany Vietnam's [economic] transformation.

Political relations remained very low-key for many years. But following high-level contact they became more intense and received a boost in 1997 through the beginning of a dialogue on human rights.

swissinfo: How would you assess the situation in Vietnam, which has often been criticised internationally for its lack of attention to human rights?

B.d.C.: Vietnam has chosen to open up economically but political reforms are still modest. The authorities have nevertheless accepted the dialogue and have, for example, promised religious freedom. However, several taboos remain such as freedom of expression, political pluralism or freedom of the press.

Compared with the size of the population, Vietnam is one of the most rigorous countries in carrying out the death penalty. Another serious problem is the dependency of the judicial sector on the government and the party.

swissinfo: What concrete results has Switzerland obtained on human rights?

B.d.C.: We were able to broach many sensitive topics thanks to this dialogue. We were able to have access to prisons, to the authorities and to the high court and we are developing specific projects.

For example, for about six to seven years we have been collaborating with the national political academy Ho Chi Minh, where high-ranking party officials are trained. We translated for them into Vietnamese the fundamental United Nations documents on human rights and the Geneva Conventions.

swissinfo: Rapid development has meant that inequalities have between the rich and poor have increased. Is the country's stability at risk after the social unrest earlier this year?

B.d.C.: No, not at all. There were a few tensions because the merits of raising the minimum wage were unclear. It would be wrong to believe that there is an organised protest movement.

In terms of development, Vietnam started at the very bottom. Now we are at the stage where more or less everybody can see an improvement in their situation year after year. The government therefore has no difficulty in guaranteeing stability. All the signs are good.

swissinfo: The next stage will be Vietnam joining the World Trade Organization. What can we expect from this?

B.d.C.: It's a step that will bring many benefits to Vietnam. But several economic sectors will suffer, for example the state industrial apparatus, which is very heavily subsidised.

Today there are many state industries. All these will have to be privatised or "equitized" as the Vietnamese like to say, as they don't like the term "privatised". But the substance is the same.

swissinfo-interview: Marzio Pescia in Hanoi

Key facts

Vietnam is around 331,000 sq km and has a population of around 85 million (average age 27 years old).
Its GDP has risen annually by 7% over the past five years, making it one of the most dynamic economies in the world.
Vietnam started negotiations to join the WTO in 1995.

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Economic ties

By the end of 2005 Swiss investment in Vietnam totalled SFr720 million ($569 million), putting Switzerland among the 15 largest investors in the country.

Around 90 Swiss companies are active in the country, including Holcim, Nestlé, ABB and Syngenta, employing a total of around 2,500 people.

In 2005 trade between the two countries was more than SFr240 million. Swiss exports include industrial machines, chemical and pharmaceutical products. The country imports mostly shoes and agricultural products.

15,000 Swiss tourists visit Vietnam each year, making Switzerland the sixth-most important European country for the Vietnamese tourist industry.

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