Are International Moral Obligations a One-Way Street?

By Dan Cadman on September 20, 2016

Earlier this month, two Fresno County, Calif., correctional officers were shot by Laotian immigrant Thong Van, a multiple felon under an outstanding order of deportation — which could not be carried out by federal immigration authorities because the Laotian government refused to cooperate in providing the travel documents needed for his removal back to Laos.

As a consequence, he was released from immigration detention because the Supreme Court has previously established guidelines for the maximum amount of time an individual can be held while attempting to execute orders of removal.

This is particularly relevant as President Obama recently completed the latest of one of his many Rodney Dangerfield-style "I don't get no respect" apology tours.

The occasion this time was the G-20 summit meeting in China. It kicked off to an inauspicious start when the Chinese snubbed our president: Unlike for every other world leader attending, there was no red carpet waiting and he was obliged to use Air Force One's rarely used lower-level stairs.

Obama then moved on to a cameo appearance at the ASEAN conference being held in Vientiane, the capitol of Laos — officially known as the Lao People's Democratic Republic. There, he took our own country to task for its role in the Southeast Asian wars of the 1960s and 1970s, calling Laos the most-bombed country in history.

That may or may not be true, I don't know, but what I do know is that the bombing came about because the Communist Pathet Lao overran the tiny kingdom of Laos during that time and then permitted the country to be used as a regional transit lounge and welcome mat for every kind of communist insurgency in the region, including the Viet Cong and the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia. Troops of the North Vietnamese regular army also routinely transited the country going to and fro in hopes of avoiding South Vietnamese and American military encounters. Communist insurgents trying to get a foothold in northern Thailand also used Laos as their refuge from which they operated, and to which they fled when fleeing Thai soldiers in hot pursuit.

While in Laos, Obama asserted that our nation has a "moral obligation" to help the Laotians, to which end he pledged $90 million in aid, ostensibly to help locate and remove unexploded ordnance still dotting the countryside. A moral obligation? Hard to gauge, given the complexities attending Laos's complicity with communist forces in the Southeast Asian wars. Did they think they wouldn't get bombed under the circumstances?

Regardless, isn't the Lao People's Democratic Republic also, and equally, morally bound to abide by its international obligations?

One of the most fundamental of those obligations is the expectation that it accept its citizens when those individuals are being deported for offenses against another country. As in the recent case of Thong Van, Laos has routinely refused to do so, just as its philosophical soul-mate and communist neighbor, Vietnam, refuses to do so (as does Cambodia).

If the Laotian government cannot undertake to meet its most basic international obligations, then where is our moral obligation to provide them with $90 million of taxpayer money?

Of course, our own government is complicit with Laotian non-cooperation, because federal law makes clear that the Secretary of State is supposed to invoke sanctions in the form of a refusal to issue visas to any country that refuses to cooperate in the removal of its citizens and nationals.

That has not happened in the case of Laos — or Vietnam, which received over $122 million in 2012 and is probably receiving more now — or Cambodia, which the president also visited, and which has been a happy recipient of U.S. largesse despite a spotty human rights record and, like its neighbors, a steadfast refusal to accept the return of its citizen deportees.

It's no wonder that under this president we "don't get no respect." Why should it be otherwise? There's no penalty to pay for sticking your thumb in our eye.