Coalition urges Apple to call out Vietnam’s persecution of climate activists

Observers say the tech giant must not repeat its mistakes in China as it shifts its supply chain south.
By RFA Vietnamese
2024.04.11
Coalition urges Apple to call out Vietnam’s persecution of climate activists A street vendor walks past a shop selling Apple products in downtown Hanoi, in a file photo.
Hong Dinh Nam/AFP

Tech giant Apple Inc. has a duty to call out Vietnam’s targeting of climate activists in line with its own policies after making the southeast Asian nation its primary manufacturing hub outside of China, a group of 61 environmental and human rights organizations said in an open letter on Thursday.

Apple must publicly condemn Hanoi’s use of “ambiguous laws” to arrest Vietnam’s climate activists on “trumped-up” tax evasion charges or risk “violating your own environmental and human rights policies and delegitimizing Apple’s positive work in these areas,” said the letter from the Members of the Vietnam Climate Defenders Coalition, addressed to the company’s leadership and board of directors.

Since Vietnam is now Apple’s most important production hub outside of China and you have committed to human rights and ‘equity and justice in climate solutions,’ we believe you have a responsibility to weigh in on the systematic persecution and imprisonment of climate leaders in the country,” it said.

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This handout photo released on October 24, 2023 by Hoang Vinh Nam shows his wife Vietnamese environment activist Hoang Thi Minh Hong posing with a motorbike in Lam Dong province on March 2, 2023. (Handout/Hoang Vinh Nam/AFP)

The letter referenced the imprisonment of Nguy Thi Khanh, who served 16 months behind bars after working to reduce the government’s coal expansion plans; environmental lawyer Dang Dinh Bach, who is serving a five-year sentence after representing communities impacted by pollution; and Hoang Thi Minh Hong, who is serving three years in prison after founding environmental group CHANGE Vietnam.

The group also called attention to authorities’ recent arrest of Ngo Thi To Nhien, the former executive director of Vietnam Initiative for Energy Transition, for “appropriation of information or documents,” which it said suggested efforts by the government to “criminalize access to information about Vietnam’s clean energy transition.”

The 61 organizations said Apple had failed to uphold its commitment to equity and justice in climate solutions, as well as transitioning its suppliers to renewable energy and a net-zero carbon impact from all of its products by 2030 by building manufacturing capacity in Vietnam.

“In Vietnam … those who would have facilitated net-zero carbon impact by supporting the transition to clean energy and other climate solutions are either in jail or have been silenced due to fear that they could be next,” they said. “Environmental organizations are shutting down, and there is currently no transparency or safe way for civil society to participate in this vital clean energy transition.”

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The executive director of Green ID (Green Innovation and Development Centre), Nguy Thi Khanh, at the NGO's headquarters in Hanoi, February 6, 2020. (Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP)

The letter urged Apple to publicly pressure Vietnam’s government to release its imprisoned climate activists and ensure that civil society is free to participate in the country’s transition to clean energy without fear of persecution.

It noted that Apple’s own commitment to human rights champions “an open society in which information flows freely” and states “the best way we can continue to promote openness is to remain engaged, even where we may disagree with a country’s laws.”

Avoid ‘same mistakes’

Ben Swanton, co-director of environmental watchdog Project88, among the letter’s signatories, told RFA Vietnamese that Apple “should not make additional investments in intensive manufacturing in Vietnam while the country lacks clean energy sources and the government continues to imprison climate activists on false criminal charges.”

Michael Caster, Asia digital program manager for ARTICLE 19, another of the signatories, said Apple has a corporate responsibility “not to make the same mistakes” in Vietnam as it has in China, where he said “human rights abuses have been rampant, including with Apple’s complicity in areas of censorship and surveillance.”

“This requires robust human rights due diligence across its supply chain,” he told RFA. “As part of this process, Apple should seriously take into account Vietnam's persecution of climate activists, independent journalists, and others, and consider using its potential economic leverage to publicly condemn such actions."

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Novelist Vo Thi Hao, right, marchs during a gathering to mark the 35th anniversary of the border war between Vietnam and China, in Hanoi, in a file photo. (Kham/Reuters)

Members of the Vietnam Climate Defenders Coalition noted that it had written a letter outlining similar concerns to Apple on May 31, 2023, one day after which Hoang Thi Minh Hong was arrested and Dang Dinh Bach declared a hunger strike in prison.

It said it met virtually with members of Apple’s staff to discuss the concerns in November, but has yet to receive a response regarding the company’s next steps.

“Apple, a company of growing significance to Vietnam’s economy, is in a unique position to bring this issue to the forefront,” the group said. “Simply stating that you are in support of equitable and just climate solutions and human rights is not enough. Your commitments require action, and now is the time to take it.”

Responsibility ‘wherever it operates’

Germany-based writer Vo Thi Hao, a frequent critic of Vietnam’s persecution of environmental activists, called their arrests “ridiculous and unjustified” in an interview with RFA.

“These activists, who had been protecting the common environment for the entire country, including those who arrested them, are now facing unjust sentences,” she said, calling for their immediate and unconditional release.

She noted that Apple’s ability to take action to protect activists in Vietnam “would be a challenge,” as it would need to “choose between democracy and human rights values and economic benefits brought about by the Vietnamese market.”

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Activist Dang Dinh Bach in an undated image. (Provided by standwithbach.org)

But she called on the company to do more to protect freedom and democracy, not only in the United States, but “wherever it operates.”

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said Apple and other major Western manufacturers “who are de-risking their supply chains” by moving from China to Vietnam “need to realize just how bad the human rights situation is in Vietnam.”

“Climate change activists and NGO leaders are in jail, workers are prohibited from forming independent unions, and the human rights and democracy movement has effectively been wiped out,” he told RFA. “If Apple doesn't speak out against this, then they are complicit and need to face repercussions from US and European consumers.”

Translated by Anna Vu. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.

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